By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
A Cook County judge on Wednesday denied bond for a man accused of setting a fire that killed four people including three children last month in a South Chicago neighborhood. Reginald Hester, 51, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors at his bond hearing alleged Hester set the building on fire after he had given $10 to a woman, who had agreed to perform a sexual act on him, but instead reneged and left him outside the building.
Hester had originally been questioned by police the night of the fire, but was released due to a lack of evidence. He was taken into custody a second time on Sept. 13 in the first block of South Waller without incident. Prosecutors say Hester gave a videotaped confession about the crime.
On Aug. 23, shortly after 1:30 a.m., seven-year-old Shaniya Staples died along with her two younger sisters: Melanie Watson, three months and Madison Watson, 4. The extra-alarm arson fire spread through the two top floors of their South Side apartment building in the 8100 block of South Essex Avenue, collapsing the roof and sending residents scattering into the night to escape the intense heat and flames.
Neighbors of the victims say they hope police have the right person. They say the neighborhood has been sad ever since the incident happened. People who normally are smiling and talking to neighbors in the morning are now hugging each other to deal with the pain.
“Those little girls never had a chance to live their lives because of some evil person. It’s a horrible situation,” said Rose Black, who lives one block over, but has walked by the charred apartment building every day on her way to run at Eckersall Stadium, which is only a block away. “The word here in the neighborhood is that a man had some sort of beef with someone in that building over some money that was owed to him. Even if that was the case, torching an entire property is insane. I hope they lock whoever did this up forever and they can burn in hell. I can’t stop imagining what it must have been like for those little girls as the flames were coming at them.”
Kirk Johnson, 56, also died in the fire. He lived in a third floor apartment in the 32-unit building.
Investigators say the fire was started in two different places in what they believe was an attempt to trap the people inside. In addition to the stairwell being on fire, the entire wooden back porch was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived.
Nearly 200 firefighters battled the blaze, but were unable to save the victims—three of whom were found on the top floor of the building. The baby died after a man jumped from the third floor with her in his arms in an attempt to save them both. Residents reported survivors jumping from second and third floor windows in a desperate attempt to escape the flames.
The building is still partly condemned with a security guard posted out front in a vehicle.
Displaced residents have also had their lives turned upside down. Many lost everything they owned in the blaze, and those who are not living with relatives or friends are staying at motels.