LIMA — Thelma Flint just didn’t think things added up.
Her sister and her sister’s boyfriend were killed in a fire that was labeled an accident in 2009.
“When it happened, I suspected foul play. I urged the fire investigator to do a thorough investigation because I felt it wasn’t an accident,” she said.
But she was assured the death of her 45-year-old sister, Massie “Tina” Flint, who died with her boyfriend, Rex Hall, 54, in a house fire on June 14, 2009, at 262 S. Pine St., was an accident.
A Lima fire investigator, she couldn’t remember his name, told her a problem with a kerosene heater started the fire. The Lima News interviewed Lima Fire Investigator Toby Jenkins following the fire. He said it appeared to be an accident.
“There appears to be no evidence of anything suspicious with the fire. There was nothing unusual about the fire,” Jenkins said. “There was a space heater that was kicked on because it was kind of cool. It appears the space heater may have caused nearby contents of the house to ignite.”
Still, things just didn’t seem right, Flint said. It was June, not exactly a cold-weather month.
“I said that just doesn’t add up. I really fought to open up an investigation, and they didn’t hear me,” she said.
More than three years passed, bringing other tragedies like multiple deaths in the family and a house fire on the day she buried her father.
“It’s been a crazy few years. I haven’t had any time to get over anything. It’s just been all back to back to back,” she said.
On Thursday, she was surprised by an officer at her front door. A Lima Police detective visited to tell Flint her sister’s death was no accident, after all.
He told her it was a homicide, she said.
“It was shocking. I had to turn around and sit my kids down for fear it would come out in the news and they would hear it there first. I had to tell them she was murdered,” Flint said.
Lima Police Detective Steve Stechschulte told her some information surfaced on a man sent to prison for life in another murder case. That man, Hager Church, confessed to detectives who went to interview him, she said.
Church, 28, remains in a prison in Toledo where he is serving a life sentence with no chance for parole for the Aug. 16, 2010, beating death of Debra Henderson inside her home at 619 Woodward Ave. He killed Henderson over a few dollars and costume jewelry.
Henderson took Church in when he had no place to stay after getting out of prison.
Church originally faced the death penalty but the prosecution, with the consent of Henderson’s family, agreed to a life sentence with no chance for parole to avoid years of appeals.
Church has not been charged in the fire deaths of Tina Flint and Hall. With Church in prison, posing no safety threat to the public, Lima Police detectives have more time to conduct the investigation and put together the best case possible to obtain a conviction.
Lima Police Lt. Jim Baker said that does not mean there will be a long delay. He said the case is a top priority.
Prosecutor Juergen Waldick said the fact Church is in prison gives them more time to build a solid case. Once a defendant is charged, the Constitution guarantees him the right to a speedy trial, putting police and the prosecution on the clock.
“Right now, we are under no time constraints but that doesn’t mean we’re going to put it on the back burner,” he said.
Once police turn over the investigation file, Waldick said he will take a careful look and will consider the death penalty against Church.
Flint knows there will be some tough days ahead. She is asking people to give the family space and not approach them about the case.
Baker said police have a lot of work to do. Church has made what Baker said was a confession.
“Were still in the process of verifying his admission,” Baker said.
Baker said fire investigations are some of the hardest to handle. Although Lima Police were not involved in this case until Church agreed to talk to detectives, he said fire investigations often have little evidence to go on. Often, the evidence burns up with everything else.
“Anytime there’s a fire, it’s extremely difficult to prove,” he said.
Jenkins, who Baker said will be brought into the investigation, could not be reached for comment.
Still, Thelma Flint can’t help but wonder if more could have been done.
She said there were just too many red flags.
“I was told they found her body at the door trying to get out,” she said.
Flint just couldn’t understand why her sister couldn’t get out of the house. The detective also told Flint her sister’s body had other injuries, such as bruising and blunt-force trauma.
She was told Church confessed to beating her unconscious when she was on a couch not far from the door before starting the fire two hours later. She was told her sister was alive and breathing when the fire was started.
“She had to be hurt pretty bad and trying to crawl to the door to save her life,” Flint said.
But the detective cautioned her that fire victims, in a frantic attempt to escape, sometimes receive similar injuries trying to find a way out.
Still, after her sister’s funeral, which was attended by many people including firefighters, Flint always had that voice in the back of her head telling her something was wrong with the way her sister died.
Flint questions why the pathologist who performed the autopsy couldn’t recognize the trauma and sense something was wrong.
“The coroner had to see she had been bludgeoned with something,” she said.
Flint also cannot get over the fact a fire investigator never questioned the use of a kerosene heater in June. Her sister did not have air conditioning.
“Nobody in the dead of summer, under any circumstances … do you burn a kerosene heater,” she said.
Flint said there are multiple people to blame.
“They dropped the ball on this in all types of levels. I asked them to please do an investigation, this does not sound right,” she said.