Five Dead In South Carolina Fire; Homicide And Arson Suspected

Police suspect arson and homicide in a house fire in which five people died early Monday.

"We are now considering these deaths as potential homicides and the fire as suspicious," Capt. Glenn Williams of the York County Sheriff's Office confirmed Monday. "One of the (police) dogs found an accelerant inside the main bedroom where the bodies were found."

Authorities were withholding identities of the five removed from the home, pending the completion of autopsies late Monday. York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant would only confirm the dead as being three children and two adults.

"We think we know who they are, but we just can't say until the autopsy results are back," Bryant said as he surveyed the exterior of the rental house about a mile south of Lake Wylie. "It's a bad scene in there."

The single-story house at 4053 Crestview Drive was rented to Jose Denis Meza, 39, according to landlord Lou Zike . Meza was charged July 16 with fondling his eldest daughter and had been ordered to move out of the home. He worked as a landscaper.

Rock Hill school officials identified the three Meza children as son, Jairo, 5, and daughters Denise, 8, and Denia, 14. The two youngest were enrolled to attend Mount Gallant Elementary and the eldest at Rawlinson Road Middle School. None of the children reported to school when classes started Thursday, school officials said. School officials didn't know the mother's name.

Law enforcement officials said it appeared no one in the house attempted to escape from the burning home. All five bodies were recovered in the same bedroom. Two children were found in one bed and one child on another bed. The adults were found on the floor.

A smoke detector at the house was working when firefighters responded to a kitchen fire about a month ago, York County Fire Marshall Randy Thompson said.

On May 3, the S.C. Department of Social Services called the York County Sheriff's Office to report possible sexual abuse in the family. Meza was accused of fondling daughter Denia, according to a sheriff's report.

The complaint was DSS's first involving the Meza family, said Virginia Williamson, DSS's general counsel.

Both parents agreed Meza should move out, and he did, Williamson said. In July he was charged with two counts of committing a lewd act upon a minor.

The abuse took place between December 2000 and December 2003 at a home on Sidney Johnson Street in Fort Mill, according to arrest warrants.

Meza was released on a $20,000 bond on condition that he not have any contact with the victim. The father had told police he was staying in Charlotte where the family's relatives lived.

Before moving to the Rock Hill area home, the family lived in the two-bedroom mill house in Fort Mill, according to neighbors. The father had told neighbor Sandra Locke that they moved to a bigger home because Denia wanted a room of her own, Locke said.

On Monday, Bryant confirmed that Meza's pickup was found in the family's driveway after the fire.

Bryant said it was the worst multiple-death incident he'd investigated in 25 years of law enforcement in York County. It was also the deadliest house fire in the Charlotte region since 1998, when a Mooresville grandfather and his four grandchildren died of smoke inhalation in a fire started by a bathroom heater.

He said a cause of the fire would not be known until the arson investigation is completed. But neighbors reported some sort of explosion -- possibly a front window from built-up heat -- "plus, there were combustibles inside the home." Bryant said all options were still being considered, including arson and murder-suicide.

Next door neighbor Randy Wolfgang said he was awakened shortly after 3 a.m. by what sounded like "some kind of a commotion followed by a bang, like soft thunder." His wife, Kristin, called 911.

He said his children rode bikes with the Meza children but he didn't know the family. "You know, we were neighbors in the same subdivision," Wolfgang said. "But really, we were just acquaintances and we'd just wave. I didn't even know their last names."

He said the family moved into the house at Thanksgiving.

Neighbor Libby Hunter said the fire woke her up about 3 a.m. When she reached the end of her driveway, flames were rising from the roof and singeing trees.

"It just burned so fast, there was absolutely nothing the firefighters could do," said Hunter, whose grandson was in school last year with the family's youngest girl. She recalled watching the children practice somersaults in the yard Sunday afternoon.

"To stand out on the street and watch the house burn and then to find out those people were in there, it's something you'll never forget," Hunter said.

Several neighbors said the family's mother, who didn't speak much English, often worked in the yard, taking care of her flower beds. The yard was one of the best kept on the block, they said. The father was rarely home, two neighbors said.

He visited the home Sunday morning, Hunter said.

Stephanie Long, who has two children and lives directly across the street from the house, said that several weeks ago the father had parked in the middle of the street, between the two houses, staring into the Meza family's home.

"I closed my blinds because I was here alone and I wasn't sure when my husband would be home," Long said. "I was uneasy."

Zike, the landlord, said the family paid rent on time and went to church every Sunday. The family attended a Spanish-speaking Jehovah's Witnesses church in Rock Hill.

"They were just kind people," Zike said. "Very nice."

Mount Gallant Elementary School Principal Chris Beard said Denise Meza, who was expected to attend third grade this year, had not shown up for school since it began Thursday. A secretary had planned to call the child's parents Monday morning, he said.

Denise Meza, who had begun attending second grade at the school last December, was a pretty girl with long curly black hair, he said.

The children had attended school in Fort Mill previously. Riverview Elementary School Principal Annette Chinchilla declined to comment on the children, saying the family had signed papers last year asking that information not be given out.

Denise Pagoota taught English as second language to Denia in the Rock Hill schools. She had tried to call Denia last week to tell her she would not be working with her this year.

"She was a conscientious child and would tell me stories about her home in Nicaragua. She was so sweet," said Pagoota, who broke down in tears when the coroner's team removed one of the smaller bodies from the rear of the home. "She deserved so much better in this life... ."

Meza was scheduled to appear in court on the sexual molestation charges next Monday.