Federal lawsuit filed 2 years after four girls die in Flora house fire

Four girls died in a house fire in Flora in November 2016.

FLORA, Ind. (WTHR) — The mother of four girls who died in Flora two years ago has filed a "wrongful death lawsuit" against her former landlords and a product liability case.

"We've got four spaces at our Thanksgiving table that will never be filled," said Jacqueline Partlow, the girls' great aunt.

Crown Hill Cemetery

Four small gravestones are perfectly aligned at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis for 11-year old Keyana Davis, 9-year old Keyara Phillips, 7-year old Kerriele McDonald and 5-year old Kionne Welch. Miles away, a single ribbon outside a burnt, boarded up rental home in Flora, reminds passers-by of where the girls lived and died, in a fire investigators say was intentionally set.

At one point investigators said the fire was electrical and could have started behind a refrigerator. But in January 2017, investigators at the Indiana Department of Homeland Security ruled the fire arson. A peer review by the Indianapolis Fire Department earlier this year confirmed the fire was set.

Still family members say for far too long Gaylin Rose, the mother of the girls has been the focus.

"She lived for those girls. There's no way in this world that she would do anything to hurt them," said Partlow, who had been with the girls and their mother at a cheerleading contest, the evening before the fire.

"The focus is too much on us and not enough on what's going on," explained Partlow. "It makes me a little angry" she said.

Federal lawsuit against landlord

Now with the two year statute of limitations drawing near, Rose, who faced questions herself about the fire says her landlords' negligence is to blame for the death of her girls.

In a federal lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of Indiana, Gaylin Rose and her attorneys say, outgoing Flora City Councilman Joshua Ayres, his business partner Troy Helderman and their company Birch Tree Holdings violated Indiana Law.

Code 22-11-18-3.5 pertains to landlords and requires property owners to provide working smoke detectors.

Indiana Code 22-11-18-3.5 Dwellings; installation of smoke detectors

According to the lawsuit Ayers, Helderman and Birch Tree Holdings, LLC failed "to provide a safe and habitable Property", was "careless and negligent in their maintenance" and "breached the statutory duty of installing, replacing and repairing smoke detectors at each level of the property and outside of each sleeping area."

"The smoke detector was right by their door. Right up the stairs, right there. nothing on it," said Partlow referring to the girls’ bedroom on the second floor. She also recalled seeing a smoke detector in the kitchen.

The lawsuit gets more specific and reads: "as a result of the failure to equip the Property with any functioning smoke detectors, ROSE's four minor children ...died from smoke inhalation."

"Those smoke detectors would have gotten them up. They would have took off (running) cause I know them. They would have come flying down the stairs because it's a noise," said Partlow, imagining what would have happened if the smoke detectors had batteries or had been working.

According to the lawsuit Rose also claims she reported malfunctioning electrical outlets in the kitchen, and problems with a Whirlpool range, and even a non-locking back door more than two weeks before the fire.

Based upon those claims and the lack of repairs, Rose and her attorneys claim Ayres and/or Helderman "acted with gross negligence." The landlords reportedly attempted to repair the outlets and a leaking kitchen ceiling but were unsuccessful.

Wrongful death claims

In addition, to the wrongful death claims, Rose also filed a product liability claim against Whirlpool, the manufacturer of the Kenmore range, made for and sold at Sears. 13 Investigates has learned the range was taken from the home for testing.

Rose and her attorney say the range was "defective" and "dangerous" and that "the deaths of her (girls) would not have occurred without Whirlpool and/or Sears.

Jacqueline Partlow says her nieces deserve answers.

"We do love those girls and we miss them," said Partlow wiping away a stream of tears. "We just want to know what happened to them," she said.

Remembering the girls

On Wednesday, the second anniversary of the fire, Partlow and her family will hold a celebration in memory of the girls at the Pizza King in Flora at 6:30pm. Gaylin Rose will not attend the event, as she has relocated to California and according to the lawsuit is undergoing counseling.

The Carroll County Prosecutor told 13 Investigates he is keeping close tabs on the case and that all leads are being followed and worked.

Anyone with information is asked to contact the Indiana State Police at: 1-800-382-4628. A $9,000 reward is being offered.

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