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After the Fire: Snitches Got Antun Lewis Convicted of Setting Cleveland's Deadliest House fire. Snitches Might Now Set Him Free

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The smoke became thicker as Bell made her way downstairs. Firefighters would later explain that the sheer volume of smoke in the house was just monumental. They'd never seen anything like it. And Bell certainly hadn't. By the time she got downstairs, all she could do was get outside and try to breathe. She passed by family friend Teon Smith, who had been sleeping in the basement, and they burst out of the house. The sole survivors.

In the cool night air, Bell felt no pain at all. Shock gripped her mind, and she became detached from the scene racing by. She looked down and saw her skin falling off: "My skin had been rolled down to my fingertips."

Angel Marrero, whose crew arrived first outside the house, leapt into a frenzy of work. Bell, in a daze, called out for help for the kids inside. Erecting a ladder, Marrero scaled the home and approached the second-story windows. The smoke was unbelievable. He shattered windows and began the search for the children.

Seconds ticked by like days, punctuated by horrified gasps or the sirens of incoming firetrucks.

The sun wouldn't be up for hours, but the neighborhood was well lit by fire as a small crowd began to form. The crackle of flames, the screams of neighbors, all against the stillness of the night. "DO SOMETHING!" Neighbors wailed.

"By the time I had the first victim on my shoulders and down that ladder, people were out," Patrick Mangan said, describing a crowd that would soon grow to dozens. "I had to make a decision to stop bringing the kids out because we ran out of ambulances."

The scene became so overwhelming that one commander had to be carted off to stabilize his emotions, while other firefighters halted the search for bodies. There was just too goddamn much happening.

Bell stayed at Metro for a month. Quickly, though, she learned that Medeia and the kids had died in the blaze. Along with the burn treatments, Bell sunk into a catatonic depression buoyed by psychotropic drugs. She'd wake in the middle of the night, screaming and braying about the family. That led to more medication. In all, Bell suffered second-degree burns to her feet, face, neck and left arm. A third-degree burn ripped across her right arm.

Residents of East 87th Street, asking not to be named, told Scene that people still talk about the fire. May 21 is a lively and solemn day on the street. The makeshift memorial on the front steps of Medeia Carter's home has grown up.

One man explained cautiously that his son was supposed to be at the birthday party that night. The kids were all going to go to Cedar Point the next day. He looked away and fumbled through those thoughts that have haunted him for eight years.

***

After the trial, the appeals began immediately. And mirroring the government's work throughout the previous three years, the defense encountered a state inmate - a snitch - named Michael Miller.

He told the court during an August 2011 hearing that McKeever had "attempted to recruit" him in framing a high-profile defendant. Miller said he declined, but the strange offer stuck with him during his stay in prison. When news of Lewis' conviction hit the press, Miller said he thought back to that encounter. McKeever's name was plastered across the reportage of the trial. "After reading that, I knew that everything he had told me was true," Miller said.

The defense brought him into the courtroom to counteract the prosecution's use of jailhouse testimony and to complement the litany of motions for retrial already filed.

"I do not want Mr. Lewis to spend the rest of his life in jail for a crime he did not commit... If I could help myself out and get some time knocked off my sentence, I would," Miller said in 2011. He added that McKeever alluded to helping him out with bond money, which totaled $600,000 at the time; Miller, as he told a judge that summer, didn't buy what McKeever was selling.

Much like each instance of an inmate taking the stand, Miller's own motives were questioned. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Collyer dug into Miller's past and revealed a man twice convicted of lying to police. Miller, it should be noted, testified while in the midst of a 15-year prison sentence for sexual crimes against minors. Behind each inmate in the trial stood the inevitable desire for reward.

From the June 2011 phone call Miller made to his friend, which came up during the August 2011 hearing:

MILLER: All right, like I said, the federal attorney and the federal investigator came down here to see me. He said, quote, in theory, unquote, there's nothing they can do for me, but he made sure I understood the quote. He said if they - if the government finds out that they're doing something for me it will look like they're trying to bribe me for my information.

As the year wore on, the motions and the hearings and the appeals took hold.

Criminal retrials don't happen often. Specific situations like Lewis' are even more rare. The crux of everything comes in the review of Judge Oliver's decision, published in February 2012:

"This has not been an easy decision for the court. The court has the utmost respect for our jury system, and does not overturn this jury's verdict lightly. However the court finds that this is one of those few cases where the integrity of the system is at stake and the court is required to overturn the jury's verdict as being against the manifest weight of evidence. Here, the a conviction for a crime of this magnitude rests almost exclusively on the word of suspect witnesses, career criminals, and jailhouse informants who can easily insert themselves into the facts of a case given its high-profile nature."

In April 2013, the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld Oliver's decision to retry Lewis in federal court.

"Now you have four federal judges who have come to the same conclusion, and we hope the federal government will review its case," Lonardo told media outlets following the news. "We hope that there'll be a new direction and a fresh investigation." Lonardo was reached for comment by Scene this fall, but cited a gag order relating to the retrial and declined comment.

***

The trial of Antun Lewis begins once again Nov. 1. That's more than eight years after the fire.

Prosecutors called the whole case "relatively straightforward" in responding to the retrial filings. But the details and the stories and the lives involved in the fire at 1220 East 87th Street discriminately say otherwise. So does Judge Solomon Oliver, who presided over the original case that convicted Lewis in February 2011. He pointed out vast discrepancies between tales from the friends and family of Antun Lewis and the prison inmates who cemented the jury's verdict.

The second trial will proceed much like the first, though it's unclear what sort of new avenues the case will wind through.

After the first round of he-said, he-said, the community was given a conviction but left with a whole mess of criminals talking shit about one another. Half of the court transcripts don't even bear out any coherence. And there are no other suspects - at least none scrutinized as thoroughly as Lewis - anywhere on the horizon.

"It doesn't stop for us. Now it just puts us on another path of grief," Evelyn Martin, Medeia Carter's mother, said following the guilty verdict in 2011.

And it certainly hasn't stopped. The same void of information and plausibility and certainty first faced by jurors nearly three years ago still stares back at all of Cleveland today.

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