, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

May 9, 2012

Fire investigator says RV was unsafe for kids

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – A fire investigator who examined the charred debris of a recreational vehicle where three children burned to death testified Tuesday that the vehicle was unsafe and the children should never have been left inside with the door locked.

Del City Fire Department Maj. Zion Williams said the inoperable vehicle where the children and their parents lived lacked basic utilities such as water and electricity. He said extension cords stretching from the nearby home of a family member provided electricity to a space heater that caused the fire.

“It was actually sad,” Williams said on the first day of testimony in the child-neglect trial of the children’s father, 26-year-old Christopher Dunham. “I believe it was unsafe. I can’t imagine leaving them in those conditions, especially with the door locked.”

The fire on Jan. 4, 2011, killed 4-year-old Christopher Dunham Jr., 3-year-old Crystal Dunham and 22-month-old Kailey Dunham. Williams testified that the bodies of the two older children and the family’s dog were found a short distance from the RV’s door and that they could have easily escaped the blaze if it had been unlocked.

“All they have to do is take two steps and they’re out the door,” Williams said.

Kailey’s body was found in the RV’s driver’s seat near a window, he said.

Christopher Dunham became emotional and wept quietly at the defense table as photographs depicting the children’s burned bodies were shown to members of a 12-member jury. Jurors were chosen Monday.

Dunham, a tow-truck driver who was at work when the fire started, has pleaded not guilty to child neglect, possession of drug paraphernalia and other drug-related charges. His wife, Stephanie, pleaded no contest on Friday to child neglect and other charges.

His defense attorney, Robert Sisson, told jurors during opening statements Monday that the children’s death was a tragic accident, not a crime.

“This is a tragic fire. This could happen to any one of us,” Sisson said.

But Assistant District Attorney Pam Stillings said Dunham breached his responsibility to provide a safe environment for his children by allowing them to be left alone in the RV and locking the door to prevent them from running off.

Dunham had installed three locks on the door, two inside and one outside, according to testimony. Investigators said the cluttered RV contained a propane tank and torch, pipes similar to those used to smoke methamphetamine and marijuana, a weight scale, punctured aerosol cans, batteries and other items that could be used to manufacture meth.

“He’s the father. He’s responsible for those children,” Stillings told jurors. “The evidence will show that he’s guilty of it all.”

Stephanie Dunham is scheduled for sentencing on June 27. Officials testified that a blood sample taken from her on the day of the fire contained evidence of meth.

On Monday, Williams testified that Stephanie Dunham repeatedly changed her story as investigators tried to piece together what happened when her children died.

She initially claimed she was with the children inside the vehicle when it caught fire and that she tried to put out the flames, he said. She eventually said she was in the adjacent structure and the children were unattended when the fire started.

Stephanie Dunham, who officials say suffers from bipolar disorder, suffered burns to her face, neck, hands and forearms when she opened the vehicle’s door after it was engulfed in flames. Officials characterized the wounds as “flash burns” caused by intense heat from the fire.

Christopher Dunham showed up a few minutes after firefighters arrived and seemed to blame his wife for the blaze, Williams said. He did not know the condition of his children or his wife at the time, he said.

“He made it sound like she was a bad person,” the investigator said. “He said that she has a very short fuse with the children. He’s putting everything on his wife right off the bat.”

Williams testified that Dunham said both he and his wife used meth and marijuana.

Last summer, Stephanie Dunham gave birth to a boy who was taken into the custody of the Department of Human Services. A DHS child welfare specialist, Angela Newman, testified that she is pregnant again.

Marc Harrison, a forensic pathologist with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said the two older children – Crystal and Christopher Jr. – had fatal levels of carbon monoxide in their bloodstreams and died of smoke inhalation. They also suffered first- and second-degree burns over about half their bodies.

Their younger sister, Kailey, suffered fourth-degree burns and extensive charring over almost all of her body. She died from a combination of her burns and smoke inhalation, Harrison said.

Harrison ruled the manner of death as accidental.

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