No Answers in Deadly Ohio Fire after Five Years

April 6, 2013
While investigators say it's arson, a survivor blames the fire on the Ford Expedition which was under recall.

April 06--LONDON, Ohio -- Ellie Hunter believes the investigators who tell her that someone killed her sister, her niece and her nephew by setting a fire five years ago today that trapped them in their home.

That's one reason she finds a civil lawsuit over their deaths difficult to reconcile. Billi Romans and her 12-year-old son, Caleb, and daughter Ami, 16, died in the April 6, 2008, fire that destroyed their rural Madison County home.

Husband and father Pete Romans made it out alive. He later sued Ford, Texas Instruments and Bridgestone, saying that a faulty cruise-control switch in his family's 2001 Ford Expedition, which was under recall at the time, sparked the fire.

Investigators disagree. They say someone poured an accelerant inside the truck, which was parked in a carport steps from the back door, and set it ablaze. The flames quickly leapt to the house, engulfing it in the middle of the night. No arrests have been made, and the criminal case remains open.

Part of the lawsuit was settled recently. Madison County Common Pleas Judge Robert D. Nichols ruled in favor of Texas Instruments (now known as Sensata Technologies), which manufactured the switch, and Bridgestone, which serviced the Expedition before the fire. Nichols said neither bears responsibility.

The claim against Ford can move forward, Nichols said, but he noted that his 85-page opinion weakens any case against the company because he also ruled against Pete Romans by allowing several of Ford's expert witnesses to testify if it goes to trial.Pete Romans' attorney, Perry Doran, said they haven't decided whether to appeal. He said the case always has been principally about Ford, and they look forward to a jury trial against the automaker to seek justice for the Romans family.

That's what Hunter wants, too, but justice of a different kind.

"They didn't deserve to die such a horrible death. It haunts me every day," said Hunter, 51, who lives with her family in the Berwick area. She said she initially was so grief-stricken that it was easier to accept this as a vehicle fire, a horrible accident. When investigators ruled it arson, things changed.

"We had to face the question, 'Who would hurt these three beautiful people who were so full of life?' We had to start focusing on who and why. It's been very hard to deal with."

There is a reward for information leading to a conviction in the criminal case. Anyone with information is asked to call Madison County Prosecutor Steve Pronai's office at 740-852-2256.

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Copyright 2013 - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

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