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Probable cause found for charges in fatal fire

March 19, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- A judge found Thursday there was probable cause to proceed with first-degree murder charges and other felony charges against Clarence Franklin Meyers in connection with a Feb. 16 house fire that killed two young sisters.

Meyers, 38, of Hancock, lived with the girls and their mother in the house at 220 Old Route 40 in Hancock. He is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, first-degree arson, two counts of first-degree child abuse and other crimes.

At a preliminary hearing in Washington County District Court, visiting District Judge Janice Rodnick Ambrose found there was probable cause for all of the felony charges against Meyers, despite an argument by his attorney that Meyers had not acted with the malice necessary for a first-degree arson charge.

In an interview with Maryland State Police, Meyers admitted to setting the fire, but said he was having second thoughts about it when a piece of burning paper fell from his hand onto a sofa doused with accelerant, Maryland State Police Cpl. T.E. McDonough testified at the hearing.

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Meyers said he had been drinking and thought the fire would help his family get contributions from the community, McDonough said. Meyers never said anything about wanting to harm anyone in the house, he said.

Deputy District Public Defender Eric A. Reed, who is representing Meyers, asked the judge to drop the first-degree arson charge because he said the state had failed to show that Meyers set the fire maliciously. The law defines "maliciously" as "with intent to harm a person or property."

"I think everyone would agree it was reckless, but it did not rise to the level of maliciousness, which is the intent to cause harm," Reed said.

Washington County Assistant State's Attorney John Dunlap said Reed was taking Meyers' word at face value and said other evidence raises questions about malice.

Three people walking into a nearby restaurant about 20 minutes before the fire overheard arguing coming from the house, McDonough testified. One of them went closer to listen and heard curse words, shouting and "a female voice grunt or roar as if in frustration," he said.

Ambrose refused to drop the charge, saying the state had enough evidence to show intent to harm the property, at the very least.

"The fact remains he poured the accelerants all over the basement," she said. "He admits it was his plan. That's malice."

Reed also asked the judge to drop the child abuse charges, saying Meyers didn't have care, custody or responsibility for the supervision of the girls at the time of the fire.

Meyers was the live-in boyfriend of the girls' mother and cared for them while she was at work, McDonough said.

Reed emphasized the girls' mother was home at the time of the fire, but Ambrose said that didn't remove his responsibility for them.

Nicole Gross, 15, and Mary Gross, 12, were found dead in the second-floor rear bedroom, McDonough said. Mary was in bed and Nicole was lying on the floor, he said.

Their mother, Melissa Lindeman, said before the fire broke out, she was in bed, Meyers was watching a movie and the girls were playing with a new karaoke machine their grandmother had given them, McDonough said.

A dog also was found dead after the fire, McDonough said.

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