Woman found dead following house fire identified as longtime resident, attorney

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published March 17, 2017

ROYAL OAK — Police released the identity of the woman found dead following a house fire earlier this month on the city’s east side.

Marsha Baliff, 72, was a longtime Royal Oak resident and attorney described by neighbors as a friendly, quiet woman who served as an inspiration to the neighborhood with her regular walks despite her obvious frail physical condition.

According to the State Bar of Michigan, Baliff first became an attorney in 1981. Her license was in good standing at the time of her death.

No funeral or other service arrangements were known as of press time.

Royal Oak Police Department Criminal Investigations Division Lt. Keith Spencer said preliminary investigations reveal that the fire may have started in the basement ceiling.

Spencer said the investigation is ongoing and a final determination of what caused the fire is expected to take some time.

“We are actively still investigating that portion of it,” he said.

Spencer said the cause of death is also pending.

“We’re actively investigating all aspects of this incident,” he said.

According to the Oakland County Medical Examiner’s Office, as of March 17, the cause of death was pending.

Baliff lived alone in the 300 block of South Minerva Avenue, just north of Fourth Street and west of Interstate 75.

“Right now, there is no obvious evidence of foul play,” Spencer said.

One day  earlier, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts posted a list of random concerns on his Facebook page that included the fire and inferred that someone killed Baliff.

Fouts wrote: “I’m hopeful that a person (allegedly a gypsy) that killed an elderly woman last week will be charged with her murder. This was a clear gypsy crime that was covered up by setting her house on fire in Royal Oak last week. A very tragic situation for a lonely woman.”

When Royal Oak Police Chief Corey O’Donohue learned of the post, he said he was shocked and he found the post irresponsible.

“The mayor of Warren has no direct knowledge of the Royal Oak investigation, and as a governmental official, he should not be commenting on something that he clearly does not know what he is talking about.”

O’Donohue said the case is under investigation, and for Fouts as a government official to post something on social media is “disrespectful” to Baliff’s family.

“It’s an investigation that we are working on; we don’t have any answers and we can’t comment on the actual investigation at this time,” O’Donohue said, adding that whenever someone dies in a fire, the department conducts a thorough investigation that takes time.

Fouts later said he made the post based on information that he’d heard.

“I said allegedly. I didn’t say I had any opinion,” Fouts said. “I just heard that on the news, and I had heard that from someone that I know in Royal Oak. I never said this was a fact. I said allegedly.”

Royal Oak police received a 911 call at 2:14 a.m. March 11 reporting the fire.

Resident Jason Law said his wife, Nicole, called 911 before 3 a.m. after seeing the flames from their home on Fourth Street, just a couple of houses away from the corner of South Minerva Avenue.

“One of our dogs woke her up and started barking,” he said.

Law said the flames were very high.

The home suffered extensive damage that could be seen later that morning as restoration workers were on-site securing the property at about 10:30 a.m. Damage was visible to the home next door, including charred and melted siding.

Spencer said on March 11 that preliminary investigations revealed the home was not affected by the recent power outages experienced throughout the city as a result of the March 8 heavy winds.

“Despite efforts by police and fire personnel to locate the homeowner, the intensity of the fire and smoke hampered entry into the home and caused a portion of the first floor to collapse,” Spencer said in a statement released later in the afternoon on the day of the fire. “Fire Department personnel extinguished the fire with minimal damage to neighboring homes and no other injuries were reported.”

The Royal Oak Police and Fire departments continue their investigations with the assistance of the Oakland County Fire Investigation Unit.

Staff Writer Brian Louwers contributed to this report.