Decade Later, Survivors Recall Deadly Unsolved OSU Blaze

April 15, 2013
The fire near Ohio State University claimed five lives.

April 13--The college sophomores who survived the fire are 29 and 30 years old now.

They are parents and professionals. They have lived all over -- California, New York, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina.

Some of the people they have met since 2003 know what they went through. But plenty don't. It doesn't come up in regular conversation.

The survivors might prefer that some people not know. Jillian Gardner May's brother ran into an old friend once, and the friend took a serious tone to ask, "How is your sister doing?"

The house fire near Ohio State University was 10 years ago, so, you know, she's fine. It changed her life. She grieves for the five friends she lost. That doesn't mean she wants people tip-toeing around her.

For that reason, and because they'd rather remember their friends than talk about themselves, some of the survivors were wary of speaking about their lives since the fire. But they did anyway because people could read this and realize that Kyle, Al, Erin, Christine and Andrea didn't live to see it. And that could shake loose the witness who can help solve the case.

"Maybe someone will come forward and say, 'I remember something,'" said John Chambers, 30.

"Some good can come from having an answer," said Joshua Patterson, 30, who wants to be able to ask: Why did you do it?On April 12, 2003, a group of OSU students threw a party at their University District house to celebrate roommate Alan Schlessman's 21st birthday. Lots of people came, including some sorority sisters from Ohio University.

The party at 64 E. 17th Ave. was over by early the next morning, and most people had left when a fire started near the front door. Eleven people escaped or were rescued by firefighters.Five did not make it out: Schlessman, of Sandusky; roommate Kyle Raulin, 20, of West Chester; and Ohio University students Andrea Dennis, 20, of Madeira; Erin DeMarco, 19, of Canton; and Christine Wilson, 19, of Dublin.

Investigators ruled the fire that started in a couch on the front porch an arson. A man was arrested but then released because prosecutors said the evidence against him was weak. The five homicides remain unsolved.Patterson was in the hospital for two weeks after the fire. His lungs were damaged, and his endurance has never completely returned.

He choked up on the phone from Charlotte, N.C., when he remembered how caring the parents of those who had died had been toward him.

But mostly, he sounded happy. He's engaged to be married and works with a group of financial planners. He said that, before the fire, his friends probably thought of him as a goofball.

If anything, the fire gave him an even-more-positive attitude, he said. He came to realize that there was no sense in getting upset if someone left the pickles off his sandwich, as he put it.

"I owe it to the people who did not make it to make my life as fruitful as it can be," Patterson said.Jen Lehren, 30, on the phone from Atlanta, where she works for the Hawks basketball team, sounded happy, too. She was reluctant to talk at first. Many of the people who know her in Georgia don't know about the fire.

When she needs to talk about it, she prefers to talk to her family members or the people who experienced it with her. Many of the survivors are in close contact.

What she notices about herself is that she's "more cautious and nervous." If her mother calls her a little earlier or later than usual, Lehren worries that something bad has happened.She never hangs up with a family member without saying, "I love you," because life has taught her that she might not be able to say it tomorrow.

"I do not go to bed at night if I had an argument with someone without making amends," she said.Lindsey Schoenberg Williams, 29, moved home to Dayton after college. She thought she had dealt with the fire. She had been in the basement when it started.

Her Dayton bedroom was in the basement, too.

"I felt like it was all coming back to me," she said.

She did, though, spend time figuring out her future. Williams decided she wanted to help college students because of the way she felt supported at Ohio University.

She is now an academic adviser at the University of South Florida in Tampa, working toward a doctorate in higher education. She believes she can help students, she said, because she knows what it is like to hit bottom when you are supposed to be having the time of your life.

"So many people struggle," she said.Meagan Teague Pachuta, 30, is a pediatric intensive-care nurse at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Her colleagues know about the fire, she said. They deal with death in their jobs, and so there has been reason to talk about it.

Pachuta had been considering transferring from Ohio University before the fire, so she could study nursing. But she stayed to be with her friends. They took a lot more pictures together after that.

Her job and what happened to her in college are separate, she said. But they do teach a similar lesson.

"I really cherish life," she said.Jillian Gardner May, 29, lives in Worthington, after years of working in public relations outside Ohio. She recently started a new position with her family's Dublin-based packaging company.

She had some tough emotional years after college, she said, without wanting to go into much detail. She does believe it helped her with what came next: marriage to a Marine.

Her husband deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan when he was in the corps. She had known her own stress and knew that he faced some, too.

"It prepared me to be better for him," May said. "I felt pretty level-headed."

She has helped begin a Columbus chapter of the national group WGIRLS, which serves underprivileged women and children. The group is volunteering at its first event a week from today, a 5k run to support military children. John Chambers, 30, found a financial-services job in Columbus out of college and has been here ever since. He's married and lives in German Village now.

He gets together with his former roommates every so often. They play in a golf tournament once a year to raise money for a scholarship that honors Schlessman.

But this is what he wants to get across: The person who started the fire is still out there.

"None of us knows what happened," he said.The case is open, said detective Dana Farbacher of the Columbus police homicide cold-case unit. He still considers some people suspects. He keeps track of Robert Lucky Patterson, the person originally arrested in the crime.

Robert Patterson, no relation to Josh Patterson, spent three years in prison on unrelated attempted burglary and attempted felonious-assault charges between 2008 and 2011.

Detectives have conducted hundreds of interviews over the years, Farbacher said.He thinks there were people at the party who have never spoken to police about that night. He wants to talk to them, even if they left hours before the fire started, even if they don't think they'd have anything new to tell.

"I am looking for people I have never talked to before," he said.

The cold-case-unit phone number is 614-645-4036.

Call with any information. The survivors want to know why they have lived for the past 10 years without their friends.

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Copyright 2013 - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

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