Illinois Woman Charged in Daughter's Fire Death

An Alton woman charged Thursday with the murder of her 6-year-old daughter intentionally set fire to her Christmas tree to burn the house down for insurance money, authorities said.

A Madison County grand jury issued an indictment Thursday charging Tracy Lancaster, 41, with first-degree murder as well as aggravated arson, involuntary manslaughter and endangering the life or health of a child.

Leah Phipps died in a fire Jan. 2 at Lancaster's house at 2627 Sanford Ave. in Alton. Alton Police, the Alton Fire Department and the state fire marshal's office conducted an investigation.

"During the course of the investigation, it was determined that the fire originated on or in close proximity to Lancaster's Christmas tree," said Madison County State's Attorney Bill Mudge. "Her daughter, Leah Phipps, was present in the upstairs bedroom at the time of the fire."

The girl died of smoke inhalation. The Madison County coroner's office reported that Lancaster, who suffered third-degree burns, went to a neighbor's for help.

Authorities said Lancaster had told people she was thinking about burning the house for insurance money. Investigators do not suspect that she intended for her daughter to die.

She was buying the house bond-for-deed and had let the insurance drop, authorities said. After the owner told her she had to have insurance, she got a new policy with a significantly higher value.

Authorities said several witnesses testified before the grand jury.

"We're happy the grand jury was able to decipher the evidence and see it the way we saw it," said Alton Police Lt. David Hayes.

Lancaster was charged with forgery in 1999 and has been sued in a few small-claims cases.

The murder charge carries a maximum sentence of 60 years in prison. Aggravated arson, the next most-serious charge, carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Circuit Judge Charles Romani Jr. set the defendant's bail at $300,000. Police arrested Lancaster about 4 p.m. Thursday without any trouble, Hayes said.

Distributed by the Associated Press