The immaculate East 87th St. home of Medeia Carter, 33, went up in flames around 2:55 a.m. on May 21, 2005. She and the eight children spending the night for her son's 14th birthday party all died.
The tragedy remains the deadliest house fire in Cleveland history.
More than eight years out from the blaze, though, there's no justice on the table for Medeia and the children. What happened after the fire is, in hindsight, little more than a jigsaw puzzle made of mirrors, half truths and unreliable hearsay. Contradictions abound, and the man convicted of setting the fire years ago is now returning to court to face those same charges once again.***
A lot of things happened after the fire. And as time wore on, the name Antun Lewis remained attached to the story. In every way, Lewis became the story long before an indictment even came down.
In late May 2005, with the fire still coloring every conversation in the neighborhood, Lewis was cooling his jets and sitting in his van with two women. They were getting high and talking about drugs. Typical. The discussion, though, soon meandered toward the fire, as even the most idle chats were wont to do back then. Lewis told the women he was "fucked up about the fire," hence his sour mood and perhaps overt use of drugs like cocaine and "wet" (PCP, more often than not).
Days later, with violent rumors swirling, Lewis took himself off the streets by surrendering to police on unrelated drug trafficking charges. He was safer behind bars, away from heated conjecture that pointed angry fingers in his direction. He was interviewed by investigators on May 31, but nothing stood out. There was no meaningful indication that Lewis, this guy from the neighborhood, warranted any additional scrutiny.
But he had it coming.
Investigators built a case that placed Lewis near the home at the time of the fire and reeled in jailhouse informants that insisted he had confessed the crime during the ensuing years. No confessions have ever been recorded, but the federal government indicted Lewis in October 2008, brought him to trial in early 2011 and a jury, based on those snitches and little else, decided that he did it.
Since turning himself in to law enforcement just days after the fire, Lewis has not left the confines of the prison system. He's maintained his innocence all along, though acquaintances like state inmate Paul McKeever and alleged accomplice Marion Jackson tell a story that has Lewis buying gasoline and pouring it himself in the home of Medeia Carter in the early hours of May 21, 2005.
The jury's verdict six years later turned out to be less a conviction and more a desperate push for answers that have yet to reveal themselves. Living in the shadows of ghosts, the friends and families of the victims have never relented in their search for the truth.
"I miss her so much," Medeia's mother, Evelyn Martin, would tell a jury in 2011. "She was a great young lady. She was a great daughter. She was a good friend. She was a good neighbor. She cared so much about people, and she loved kids." Her home, just blocks from 1220 East 87th Street, is plastered with images of Medeia and the children -- Devonte Carter, Moses Williams, Malee'ya Williams, Fakih Jones Jr., Antwon Jackson Jr., Earnest Tate Jr., Shauntavia Mitchell and Miles Cockfield.
After the fire, when they should have been packing into cars for a trip to Cedar Point for little Moses' birthday, their names passed painfully into memory.
The house, a singularity now, maintains its vigil.***
Hearsay is not admissible as evidence in the court of law. But the first trial of Antun Lewis, which took place amid the snowy doldrums of a Cleveland winter, was riddled with the stuff.
During that first trial, testimony routinely danced around a state inmate named Paul McKeever. In jail at the time for child porn charges and car theft, he's a known police informant - a "snitch," in prison parlance - who has worked with authorities on many high-profile cases in the area. He helped police lock down the two teenagers who murdered Mary Jo Pesho in 1996 in Parma.
Before the fire, he had never heard of Antun Lewis.
But the two crossed paths at the Cuyahoga County Jail shortly after Lewis had checked in. McKeever had been brought north to testify on another case. He was being held in the medical bay when Lewis came in after a scuffle. Of course, this chance meeting would lead to a conversation between McKeever and Lewis that would become the linchpin in the government's case against him. There's no recording of what McKeever relayed from his time in county.
"Antun was kind of hyper because he just got, you know, done getting into a fight," McKeever explained to the jury. "He - there was another gentleman in the cell that actually knew him from the streets and they were talking about drugs and the guy even asked him what happened to the fire that he was being investigated for."
McKeever engaged Lewis directly and asked him what he was talking about. A read-through of the first trial shows that nearly everything else in the investigation flows from that conversation.
"[H]e said that the bitch deserved what she got and that they didn't have nothing on him," McKeever said. "That's exactly what he said."
McKeever soon contacted Detective Jeff Cook of the Maple Heights Police Department, who put the inmate in touch with Detective Ray McCarthy of the Cleveland Fire Department's arson unit in June 2005.
In September of that year, the anger of Cleveland was still roiling; there had been no progress on the criminal investigation. The fire had been ruled an arson in the days following the tragedy. Where was the justice?
McKeever was hauled back to Cuyahoga County Jail - another bout of unrelated snitch testimony - where he met an old pal and lifelong criminal, Marion Jackson. People called him "Pops," because he was the old guy in prison. And Pops knew Antun Lewis.
"The East 87th Street fire came on the news and Pops - he usually don't watch the news too much - and for some reason, he started watching it real, real closely when it came on," McKeever said. "Then he was kind of worried about something. He was kind of - he was acting funny, so he went towards the window. I went over and talked to him a little bit and our conversations led to him saying that he knew who set that fire and he said that he knew the guy who actually did it." Jackson named Lewis, and McKeever carted that information to McCarthy, the arson detective.
McCarthy would soon speak with Jackson, who reportedly explained that same story. Lewis was in the crosshairs of the investigation at that point, and the government's aim never diverted.***
McKeever was sent to Grafton Correctional Institute to continue his sentence. He's spent time in prisons across Ohio, garnering the snitch reputation and a general distaste from other inmates. He's a persistent guy, inmates explained in court, and he knows how to press people for information.