Now in paperback. Was a monstrous killer brought to justice or an innocent mother condemned?
On an April night in 1989, Jo Ann Parks survived a house fire that claimed the lives of her three small children. Though the fire at first seemed a tragic accident, investigators soon reported finding evidence proving that Parks had sabotaged wiring, set several fires herself, and even barricade her four-year-old son inside a closet to prevent his escape. Though she insisted she did nothing wrong, Jo Ann Parks received a life sentence without parole based on the power of forensic fire science that convincingly proved her guilt.
But more than a quarter century later, a revolution in the science of fire has exposed many of the incontrovertible truths of 1989 as guesswork in disguise. The California Innocence Project is challenging Parks's conviction and the so-called science behind it, claiming that false assumptions and outright bias convicted an innocent mother of a crime that never actually happened.
If Parks is exonerated, she could well be the "Patient Zero" in an epidemic of overturned guilty verdicts—but only if she wins. Can prosecutors dredge up enough evidence and roadblocks to make sure Jo Ann Parks dies in prison? No matter how her last-ditch effort for freedom turns out, the scenes of betrayal, ruin, and hope will leave readers longing for justice we can trust.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Edward Humes is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author whose fourteen previous books include Garbology, Mississippi Mud, and the PEN Award–winning No Matter How Loud I Shout. He splits his time between Seattle and Southern California.
Read an Excerpt
April 9, 1989
The banging and screaming began shortly after midnight, fists rattling the front door, a woman's voice crying and moaning for help.
Shirley and Bob Robison, ready for bed and relieved that the heat wave plaguing Los Angeles that week had abated at last, stumbled through the dark house and threw open the door.
On the welcome mat stood their young neighbor-disheveled in her nightgown and housecoat, shaking and wailing. "My babies," Jo Ann Parks gasped. "Help them, please, please. They're still in there!"
The Robisons needed no explanation for what "there" meant. A garish orange light had painted their white stucco house the color of glowing coals. The weedy driveway normally obscured by darkness at this hour was lit up, and the Robisons could feel the furnace-hot air pumping up its length like a chimney stack. At the back end of the driveway, the converted garage apartment blazed.
The twenty-three-year-old Parks, her husband, and their three small children had moved into this dingy rental in the cramped Los Angeles suburb of Bell less than a week before, clothes and knickknacks and photo albums still piled in half-unpacked boxes, the place a mess. Now the apartment crackled and hissed, flames flaring as bright as camera flashes in the darkness, revealing gouts of black smoke pouring up into a leaden, starless sky.
"My children!" Parks shrieked. "They're in back!"
Bob hesitated. He was too old for this, he thought. At fifty-seven, his health wasn't the greatest. He was bone tired, his job wearing him down day by day. But . . . three little kids. Three little kids trapped in a burning house. Somebody had to do something. Staring at the doorway Parks had left open, he could see inside to the front room of the apartment, the master bedroom, flames and smoke roiling inside. He told his wife to call 911. Then Bob Robison took a deep breath, held it, and screwed up his eyes as if he were jumping off the high dive. He walked to the door and disappeared inside.
Shirley and Parks gawked at the doorway, then ran back into the front house to phone for help. Then they raced back to the driveway, waiting for the fire engines, waiting for Bob, waiting for the children to emerge. Parks started moving toward the doorway into the burning house, too, but Shirley grabbed her from behind, shouting, "No, Jo Ann, don't!" She wrapped her arm around Parks's shoulders and would not let go, certain a distraught woman could not survive long in that house in her flimsy summer nightclothes. "You can't go in there."
Parks seemed to be bordering on hysteria to Shirley, but the younger woman heeded the command and didn't fight to free herself. After that, she made no more moves toward entering the house.
"Oh, God," Parks moaned a few seconds later. She spoke so softly, Shirley had trouble hearing what she said next. But it sounded something like, "I hope Ronnie wasn't playing with matches again."
"What was that?" Shirley asked. Ronnie Jr. was the Parkses' oldest child and only boy, four years old, clever, occasionally mischievous. Was Jo Ann really revealing that the fire could be Ronnie's fault? Or was she just gibbering her fears and guesses in a moment of hysteria? Shirley couldn't tell. Nearly three decades would go by, her husband long passed, and still she would wonder just what Jo Ann Parks had said in that moment, and what, if anything, it meant.
Shirley pulled her eyes away from the fire, which seemed to be growing more intense with each passing second. She asked, "Jo Ann? What did you say Ronnie did?"
Parks shook her head, though whether that gesture came in negation, regret at her words, or simply to clear her head, Shirley once again could not tell. Jo Ann had seemed a bit odd to Shirley, no doubt about that. But this did not seem like the time to press the point, not with the apartment aflame and three little children in jeopardy. So Shirley just hugged the younger woman again around the shoulders, stayed close, and murmured words of comfort.
"My babies," Parks said. "Will he find them? Will they be okay?" She kept repeating variations of this. It sounded almost like a chant.
Shirley didn't know what to say. The apartment, with its 528 square feet of living space, had become an inferno. The heat was growing painful just standing in the driveway. She could not see her husband through the open door and feared he might not be able to save himself, much less three kids. And where were the police? Where were the fire trucks? Had it been only seconds since she called 911? It seemed like many minutes to her. It seemed like forever.
"Yes," Shirley finally said. "Yes. Help is on the way. They're going to be all right." But she didn't really believe it, not for a second.
Eleven Hundred Degrees
There are three basic truths about house fires: Most fires begin small. Most spread fast. Most start stupid.
An untended frying pan and a few tablespoons of overheated cooking oil are all it takes to destroy a home in minutes. An ember dropped in the wrong spot by a sleepy smoker can, with a bit of time, be as devastating as a blowtorch. Poorly maintained furnaces can start fires while unsuspecting homeowners sleep. So can overused and overloaded extension cords, of which the Parks family had many.
Daily life and the modern home contain pervasive fire hazards, though these potentially lethal objects are so familiar, ubiquitous, and habitual they might as well be invisible. A common match, after all, can be snuffed with a pinch of the fingers with no ill effect, yet this seemingly innocuous everyday item burns at 1,100 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. That's more than enough to set aflame upholstery, newspapers, a bag of chips, or most anything hanging in your closet. The flame of a cheap pocket cigarette lighter is more than three times as hot as a match. And the gas burners of a typical stove run five times hotter, providing virtually unlimited capacity for havoc-which helps explain why nearly half of all accidental house fires start in the kitchen. This was as true in 1989 as it is today: The deadliest fire in New York City in a quarter century, killing twelve in 2017, started in a first-floor apartment with a boy Ronnie Jr.'s age playing with the knobs on a stove.
And then there are the minority of fires, about one in twelve, that are not accidental. The combination of flame and mischievous child-or ill-intentioned adult-has reduced many buildings to smoldering scenes of loss and grief. An entire industry, body of law, and branch of forensic science have evolved over generations to try to ferret out that one in twelve.
But the ease with which fires start belies the difficulties in figuring out their causes from the debris and ashes left behind. Distinguishing accidental fires from intentional blazes remains one of the toughest challenges of forensic investigation, as arson is the one criminal act that consumes rather than creates vital trace evidence. The DNA, fingerprints, footprints, hair, and fiber that investigators use to try to solve other sorts of crimes all can vanish in the flames, and what isn't destroyed by the fire is often wiped away by the firefighting. At the same time, an accidental fire is the one blameless catastrophe that can disguise itself as a crime.
Fires that burn hot enough and long enough can create false signs and suspicious artifacts that mimic arson, particularly in modern homes filled with petroleum-based plastic products that can burn similarly to petroleum-based fuels. This dual nature of fire poses one of the great, if rarely acknowledged, paradoxes of the criminal justice system.
Just after midnight on April 9, 1989, Jo Ann Parks would find herself caught in this paradox-one that, three decades later, science and the law are still struggling to resolve.
This struggle is waged daily: On average, a building burns in the United States once every sixty-three seconds. Every two and a half hours, someone dies in those flames. These fires strike with astonishing speed, with a typical house fire evolving from minuscule to massive in mere minutes.
The physics of fire follows a relentless ticktock of destruction. It can take only thirty seconds for an errant spark or flame to spread from a small starting place in living room, kitchen, or bedroom. In that short half minute, a fire can take root in nearby napkins or newspapers, pillows or dishtowels, slipcovers or blankets, or, as investigators would later conclude after studying the Parks apartment, curtains and drapes.
Once this spread occurs, there may be only seconds remaining in which a quick-witted person can easily extinguish a fire with simple materials at hand: by smothering the flames with a blanket, towel, or water, or, ideally, a household fire extinguisher. If there's no one in the room during those first moments of flame, if everyone's asleep-as Jo Ann Parks would later recall she and her children were-then the threshold between smoky nuisance and deadly threat can be crossed quickly.
After that, the flames can easily take charge.
By the end of the first minute, if no one intervenes, the flames in a typical house fire can grow higher and hotter, allowing them to spread from the initial foothold to adjacent furniture, window coverings, paneling, moving boxes-whatever is close by and flammable, which is to say, most of the objects we own and live with. To fire, our possessions are nothing more nor less than fuel. If some of them happen to be plastic, vinyl, or other synthetic materials, their burning doesn't just produce heat and more flame. They can release compounds of cyanide and other toxins into the air. Then there are the suffocating plumes of carbon monoxide that black, sooty fires pour into the atmosphere, the same deadly stuff emitted by car exhaust pipes.
These gases and particles combine to form a cloud of hot, acrid smoke that collects beneath the ceiling, a wispy, barely visible layer at first that soon darkens and thickens. Once this searingly hot gaseous mixture grows sufficiently concentrated, as little as two inhalations can render a person unconscious. Long before that, the depletion of oxygen and addition of toxins causes mental confusion and disorientation in the room. Occupants of a burning house at this stage can literally forget what to do or where to go. This is not a matter of individual susceptibility or strength. This is chemistry and biology. It's one reason why self-contained breathing apparatus are as essential for firefighters as they are for scuba divers.
By the two-minute mark the air in the room where the fire originated-a house fire's ground zero-can reach the temperature of boiling water. The lighter-than-air smoke cloud, blocked from rising any higher than the ceiling, grows downward instead, its bottom eventually dipping below the tops of doorways and hallway entrances. Then this toxic cloud can flow into adjoining rooms on a current of very hot gas-hot enough to burn respiratory tracts if inhaled.
After three minutes, the flames typically begin to spread by direct contact into adjacent areas of the house, a monster extending tentacles of flame, drawn not just by fuel but also by open doors or windows that offer ready sources of oxygen, the essential partner to sustain any fire. A fire initially governed by the availability of fuel is now governed by the availability of oxygen, burning most fiercely not at the actual point of origin, but where there are openings-ventilation, as the firefighters call it-to the outside. The exchange of cold air rushing in and hot gases venting out can cause a swirl of air, smoke, and heat currents-leaving behind a confusion of burn patterns on walls and floors for investigators to puzzle out, or be puzzled by.
The atmosphere surrounding the fire origin might still be 100 degrees near the floor but can reach 400 degrees at eye level by this time, the descending gas hot enough to kill. Once it tops 600 degrees, clothing can melt to your skin and the fire can move outward into the house not only by direct contact with spreading flame, but because the smoke and gases now radiate enough heat to ignite nearby objects on their own.
Between the three-and-a-half- and four-minute marks, temperatures can reach up to 1,100 degrees. At that point, a phenomenon known as flashover can occur, in which every flammable surface in the room not already burning will ignite in rapid succession-even gases and partially burned particles of ash in the air. Flashover can kill instantly, and poses a threat even to firefighters wearing protective suits and breathing apparatus. Oxygen in the space is rapidly consumed during flashover. If there are intact windows, they often shatter, which allows more oxygen to rush in, further feeding the flames. Or this can unfold in reverse order: Windows can fail from growing heat, allowing an influx of oxygen that pushes a burning room into flashover.
Once flashover occurs, ground zero has morphed from a fire in a room into a room on fire. Just about everything that can burn is burning, although some materials will burn faster than others, another way in which investigators can be fooled about the nature of house fires. After flashover, a room is said by firefighters to be "fully involved," which sounds like jargon but is, in fact, a literal description.
Flashover in one room can propel superheated smoke, gas, burning debris, and jets of flame into other rooms, out windows, up staircases, or through the ceiling and into the spaces above. Between the fourth and fifth minutes, the spreading flames and hot gases can begin building toward flashover in other areas of the house. The smaller the home or apartment, the faster a fire can reach this point. Within five to six minutes of a fire's origin, every room in a house can be fully involved, with no place to hide, no safe air to breathe, no way to see a path to safety, and many ways to take a fatal wrong turn.
Long before this point, people sleeping in such a house can be overcome by carbon monoxide fumes, lapsing into coma and death, never knowing what killed them. More fire victims die of asphyxiation than burns-a very small mercy, perhaps, but also a cautionary lesson. This is why household smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are so vital, and why homeowners and landlords today-as well as in the 1980s in California-are required to install such lifesaving devices in apartments and homes for rent and sale.
The owners of 6928 1/2 Sherman Way had been accused over the years of being slumlords. Firefighters could find no evidence in the Parks apartment, with its dry, old wooden walls, flammable ceiling tiles, and plastic-lined drapes, that smoke alarms were ever installed.
Table of Contents
Part 1 A Long Fuse Lit
1 April 9, 1989 3
2 1,100 Degrees 7
3 Firefighting 13
4 Statements 27
5 Victims 35
6 Arson Expert 43
7 Three Days in October 1991 51
Part 2 Stirring The Ashes
8 The Pit 65
9 Growing Up Jo Ann 77
10 They Told Me I Couldn't 87
11 It's All Gonna Come Out in the End 107
12 Everything Which Is Not Law 125
13 "If I Am Wrong, Then Everything I Have Ever Been Taught… Would All Be Wrong." 153
Part 3 Fire On Trial
14 Sherlock Was Wrong 183
15 The Monster Speaks 205
16 The Bias Man 213
17 Unhinged 229
18 What Revolution? 251
Epilogue: The Curse of Uncertainty 265