Date: 1988-11-02

Washington Post
Author: Veronica T. Jennings; Washington Post Staff Writer

A 15-year-old youth who authorities said may have been trying to commit suicide by setting his mattress afire was charged with arson and first-degree murder yesterday in a Sunday morning blaze that killed two of his younger brothers in their house in Ellicott City

Jacob S. Clemons was charged as an adult in the blaze that trapped his brothers in an upstairs bedroom. A judge ordered him placed in a state mental hospital for psychiatric evaluation, saying Clemons "has symptoms of a mental disorder . . . and is a clear danger to himself and others."

Clemons' brothers Michael, 8, and James, 5, died of smoke and soot inhalation in the 1:40 a.m. blaze at their home in the 10300 block of Lombardi Drive. Six other persons survived the fire, which caused an estimated $250,000 in damage.

Authorities said they believe that Jacob Clemons, who has cerebral palsy and uses crutches, set his mattress ablaze in a downstairs bedroom, then had second thoughts and tried to alert Michael Touchette, 28, one of two adults in the house, a fire investigator said yesterday.

Neighbors said the teen-ager had become depressed recently over family problems and his medical condition. Clemons is one of 15 adopted children of David and Sally Clemons, who were vacationing in Aruba when the fire occurred.

Police charging documents assert that the youth "willfully and maliciously set fire to a dwelling house with reckless and wanton disregard of the consequences."

If convicted, Clemons could be sentenced to life imprisonment on the murder charges, a prosecutor said. An arson conviction is punishable by 30 years in prison, authorities said.

The youth remained silent yesterday at a bond review hearing before District Court Judge James N. Vaughan, who ordered the psychiatric evaluation at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, Md. Clemons was to be transferred there from the psychiatric unit at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, where he was admitted after the fire.

Howard County Public Defender Carol Hanson, who is representing Clemons, asked that her client not be incarcerated at the county jail in Jessup, Md.

"At this time, it is in his best interests to be in a hospital under the care of a physician and psychologist," she said.

Police and fire investigators said they hoped to obtain more information about Clemons' mental state in interviews with the family and the youth.

But Judge Vaughan, acting at Hanson's request, issued a protective order prohibiting police and prosecutors from interviewing Clemons about the fire.

No family member was present at yesterday's court proceedings.

Clemons kept his head bowed during a brief initial hearing before District Court Commissioner Walter F. Closson, who ordered him held without bond because of the first-degree murder charges.

Authorities then hastily arranged a bond review hearing before Vaughan to avoid sending the youth to the county jail. Hanson said she wanted Clemons released to his family's care, but said she had been unable to contact a relative about the case.

The split-level home of the youth's adoptive parents had become an international haven over the years for the 15 children they had adopted. Many of the children were those no one else wanted to adopt: those with emotional problems, learning disabilities or physical handicaps.

A Howard County police spokesman said authorities were reluctant to press charges against Clemons because of his medical condition, the fact that he is under psychiatric care and out of consideration for the family, but felt they had to.

"Two people died in a fire that was deliberately set," said Sgt. Angus Park, a police spokesman. "In pure legalistic terms, that's murder. The justice system requires the police to investigate the case. The evidence supports the need for an arrest in this.


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