GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It will be up to a jury to decide whether a father’s negligence with a backyard fire, sparking the house fire that killed his wife and three sons, should go to prison.
Robert Scales was in court for a preliminary hearing Wednesday as details about the deadly February fire near the intersection of 28th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue came to light.
Killed were his wife Wanedia Scales and their blended family of three sons: 15-year-old Xavier Woleab, 14-year-old Robert Scales Jr. and 10-year-old Elijah Scales.
A Grand Rapids Fire Department investigator said a backyard burn pit was still smoking after the flames were doused. It was less than two yards from the house and within feet of a box spring between the pit and home that also caught fire.
“Anyone that’s ever been around a fire, it’s shocking how close it was,” Assistant Kent County Prosecutor Daniel Helmer said. “We got a fire pit 5 feet from a wall — just 5 feet, 9 inches from a wall — (and) 22 inches from combustible material leaning up against that house.”
Edward Allen testified that he is Scales’ partner in a “junk removal business” and that they dispose of some of that junk in the pit behind the Scales home at 2902 Dawes Ave. SE, including a wooden desk on the night before the deadly fire.
“We put water on it, Robert put the lid on top of it,” Allen said. “I told him I left at 7:45 (p.m.). There was no fire burning when I left.”
Allen’s reluctant testimony contradicted his interview with police about whether the fire was going when he left and whether things other than the desk were burned. Scales allegedly told investigators that he burned trash and leaves as well as logs in the pit.
“He knows (the fire) wasn’t out when he left and that’s why these four are dead,” Helmer summed up.
The defense asked the judge to consider other possibilities.
“What we don’t know is what the kids are doing. We don’t know if someone goes out there and rekindles that fire,” defense attorney Anthony Greene said.
While a police investigator said Scales admitted to removing the smoke detector from his home in order to paint, Greene argued that since Wanedia Scales owned the home, she was responsible for working smoke alarms.
“The duty for the fire detector goes to the owner of the house. You cannot change that,” Greene said.
One of the few allowed in the Grand Rapids courtroom under coronavirus mitigation rules was NaToya Aimery, the mother of boys Robert and Elijah.
“They can’t speak, they can’t tell their story but those of us that are here, that are left behind, we’re here to tell their story and their story is going to get heard,” Aimery said. “They were my babies. I loved them to death. They loved their mother, they loved their sisters. They have a new sister that they didn’t even get a chance to meet.”
She said accountability is important.
“I have faith that no matter how the situation turns out, there will be justice one way or another,” Aimery said.
She also hopes that people learn from this calamity.
“Keep smoke detectors in your house, that’s number one,” Aimery said.
At the end of the hearing, the judge decided there was enough evidence to send the case on to trial.
Scales, who is accused of involuntary manslaughter in his family’s death, remains free on bond. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.