Suspect charged with arson, five counts of felony murder
Posted March 16, 2017
DETROIT — Henry Keith Johnson, a 55-year-old Detroit resident, has been charged with five counts of first-degree felony murder following a fire on the city’s east side that authorities have concluded was arson.
On the afternoon of March 8, Detroit firefighters responded to a call at an apartment complex on Whittier Avenue, near Beaconsfield Street. The building held eight apartments with an undetermined number of residents living there.
“We received a call for a fire in the building,” said Deputy Fire Commissioner David Fornell. “There was a firehouse down the street, and some people from the neighborhood ran down and banged on the door. The engine was out at the time, but the medic was there and responded immediately. The first commander on the scene immediately called a second alarm.”
The incident occurred on the same day that heavy winds ripped through the Detroit area and left a huge number of DTE Energy customers without electricity due to damaged power lines. Although the power outages didn’t affect the site of the fire, the heavy winds contributed to the speed in which the fire spread. Five residents died as a result of the fire.
“The winds were gusting around 60 mph, and the way the building was situated, the wind was coming into the back of the building, so when the windows were blown out, the wind spread the flames,” said Fornell. “Four residents were found deceased when firefighters searched the building, and another was transported to the hospital, where he died from burns and smoke inhalation.”
Additionally, four other residents were treated for injuries: one for burns and smoke inhalation, one for smoke inhalation and a laceration to a hand suffered while attempting to flee the building through a window, and two others who also suffered from smoke inhalation.
Johnson, who lived in the building in question, has been charged by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy with five counts of first-degree felony murder and one count of first-degree arson. He was arraigned March 10 in 36th District Court in Detroit. The defendant requested court-appointed representation, but a lawyer had not been appointed at press time.
“The determination of arson was made by a designated arson task force, with members of both the Detroit Fire Department and Detroit police taking part,” said Fornell. “Once arson is determined, the case is given to (the) Detroit Police Department’s Homicide Division, as is any case, suspicious or not, when there is a fatality found at the site of a fire.”
Johnson was not given a bond and was remanded into custody at the Wayne County Jail to await his next court date, which is a probable cause hearing March 23.
“It is being investigated as arson, but we cannot go into specifics, as it is an open investigation,” said Jennifer Moreno, a media relations officer with the Detroit Police Department. “I can confirm the suspect was a resident in the building and the incident possibly stemmed from an argument that escalated.”
Fornell said that this is a tragic case despite swift work on the part of the first responders who were on the scene.
“They did a terrific job under very punishing conditions — especially to rescue a resident on the first floor,” said Fornell. “There were several fires that day, and they were responding to one call after another in large part due to the wind knocking down power lines. It’s a tragedy it happened, and it is horrible that there were so many who lost their lives in the fire, but I am thankful our people were able to respond as quickly and effectively as they did to keep it from getting even worse.”
About the author
Staff Writer Brendan Losinski covers Harper Woods and Northeast Detroit as well as Franklin, Bingham Farms and Beverly Hills; Birmingham Public Schools and Bloomfield Hills Schools. Brendan has worked for C & G Newspapers since 2016 and graduated from Oakland University.
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