SODUS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office says it will not file criminal charges in a July 2018 motel fire that killed a mother and five of her children.
Kiarre Curtis, 26, was staying in a second-floor room at the Cosmo Extended Stay Inn when fire swept through the motel near St. Joseph around 1:45 a.m. on July 28, 2018. Kiarre Curtis died along with five of her children: 2-year-old Avery Curtis, 4-year-old Savod Curtis, 5-year-old Samuel Curtis, 7-year-old Gerome Randolph and 10-year-old Marquise Thompson.
Authorities say officers contacted the person inside the burning motel room and then started alerting other tenants to evacuate. However, the thick smoke prevented officers from traveling the inside hallway of the first floor and forced two Berrien County deputies and a Michigan State Police trooper from the second-floor hallway.
Once outside the building, the officers rescued 36-year-old Samuel Curtis and his 1-year-old daughter, Autumn, from a second-story balcony.
Samuel Curtis told the officers the rest of his family tried to escape via the smoke-filled interior hallway. Firefighters discovered the mother and five children in the second-floor hallway or stairway heading to the first floor and tried to revive them at the scene and at the hospital, but they died from smoke inhalation.
Fire investigators determined the fire was likely caused by careless use of a hot plate by the person inside the first-floor room. However, the prosecutor said the act did not reach the level of gross negligence to merit charging the tenant with a crime.
Jon Jilek, who is representing the Curtis family in a civil case, says he doesn’t understand the prosecutor’s decision to not pursue criminal charges.
“It’s my belief that if six middle-class white people faced the same circumstances in St. Joseph, that charges would have been brought quickly. What this illustrates to us is that there’s some subtle discrimination going on,” Jilek said.
The family attorney says there is evidence the fire alarm system was not working, citing sworn testimony from people who say they did not hear the fire alarm or they pulled the fire alarm and it did not work.
“There’s sworn testimony that in fact, weeks prior, that the manager had shut the system down,” Jilek said.
Prosecutor Michael Sepic declined a request to speak with News 8 in an on-camera interview.
As for hotel owner Sodus Hospitality, Inc., the prosecutor said the company fixed all issues flagged during its most recent inspection in 2016.
The prosecutor also pointed out some tenants at the hotel were long-term residents who could choose to disable the smoke detectors in their rooms.
“It would not amount to criminal negligence for the owner/operator to fail to make sure long-term residents have not disabled their smoke detection unit,” the prosecutor’s report stated.
The prosecutor said while the law now requires all hotel room alarms to be connected, which could’ve possibly allowed the family more time to try to escape, the law didn’t apply to Cosmo Extended Stay Inn because it was built beforehand. The report did not directly address the building’s lack of a fire suppression system with sprinklers.
The prosecutor also said the functionality of the hotel’s smoke alarms or pull alarm fire system did not contribute to the family’s deaths because smoke was not a factor inside their hotel room, nor did the lack of an alarm in their room delay their attempts to escape. Though a couple of people reported they pulled the fire alarm system and it didn’t activate, there is no physical evidence to prove they did pull the alarm, according to the prosecutor.
Authorities did say while the circumstances of the deadly fire didn’t rise to the level of criminal negligence, they did not address “ordinary negligence,” which could lead to a civil lawsuit in the case.
The Curtis family’s attorney elaborated on his stance about the prosecutor’s decision in the following statement emailed to News 8:
“Discrimination can be subtle or overt. Overt discrimination is easy to see and more easily condemned. Subtle discrimination was the cause of the decision not to charge the owner of the Cosmos Extended Stay Inn for six deaths that occurred over one year ago. Poor black people do not get the same consideration, either as perpetrators or victims.
“While there is little dispute that race and poverty play roles in our society’s decision making, parties should restrain themselves from quickly “playing the race card” or “playing the poverty card.” On the other hand, when there is no logical explanation for an abdication of civic responsibility other than race or poverty, the improper acts must be called out. In short, if six middle class white people had been killed under the same circumstances in a Saint Joseph hotel, charges would have been brought quickly.
“It has taken over a year for the Prosecutor to make this decision. The Prosecutor’s press release cherry picks the facts to support his decision not to charge. This hotel is not exempt from the legal requirements applicable to hotels. In the civil litigation, the owner has admitted the Cosmos Extended Stay Inn was treated as a hotel under Michigan law. Since 1991, Michigan has put responsibilities on hotel owners, many of which were ignored by this hotel. None of the witnesses heard any smoke or fire alarms. Michigan law requires an automatic internal audible alarm system. An independent company hired by the County to study the cause of the fire concluded “I believe the Fire Alarm System did not go into an alarm state during the fire and did not activate the horn strobes throughout the building.” Additionally, the fire alarm system was pulled by at least two of the residents, but the system failed to activate. Witnesses have stated under oath that, prior to the fire, the manager of the hotel had shut down the main fire alarm system. In making the decision not to charge, the Prosecutor ignored or decided not to believe these facts.
“We have all heard the statistics that, in a fire, seconds are important. The bodies of the six family members were found in the hallway trying to escape. They were overcome by smoke.
“In the civil discovery process, the owner refused to answer some questions as he expected to be charged. Yes, the family has a civil remedy. But, that is no excuse for the Prosecutor not to charge criminally. Drunk drivers are sued and concurrently criminally charged on a regular basis.
“Calling out discrimination can be an ugly business. But, more ugly is the act itself. The family deserves more. The people of Berrien County deserve more.”— Jon Jilek, Koning & Jilek, P.C.