FLORA, Ind. (WISH) — More than three years ago, a mom lost all her daughters. A house fire that gutted the home also resulted in the death of four girls, ages 5-11. The mom survived, and the search for answers continues.
If you drove past the corner house at Columbia and Division streets before Nov. 21, 2016, you’d probably see four little faces smiling back.
“They were so joyous,” said Kathy Clendening, one of the women who helped create a cookbook to raise funds for the family after the fire. “They were very happy girls. I never seen them not smiling, always on the front porch waving at everybody that went by. They didn’t know a stranger.”
Now the house is the site of a mystery.
Kionnie, Kerriele, Keyara and Keyana died in a fire in this house. Immediately after, the State Fire Marshal’s Office said it did not suspect foul play. But about two months later, a stunning announcement via email: Investigators now labeled the case arson.
The girls’ mom was the only survivor.
“For me to be right here today, it is just so hard, it’s so hard,” said Tracie Rose, the victims’ grandfather. “But as I continue to teach my daughter, ‘You gotta keep fighting.’”
Fight they did.
The community created a cookbook and raised money, hoping it would draw out someone who knew something. People in Flora held a vigil marking one year since the fire. But that night, the state police did not release a suspect or description.
“As long as I’m breathing air, we’re going to stay here,” said ISP Superintendent Doug Carter, on the one-year anniversary of the fire. “So we’ll continue to move forward, we’ll continue to drive and to drive, and to talk and to talk and to talk.”
That month, Carroll County Prosecutor Rob Ives announced he would step down, and Flora Fire Chief Adam Randle resigned.
Timeline of events
- Nov. 21, 2016 – Kionnie, Kerriele, Keyara and Keyana are killed in the fire. A day later, the fire is ruled undetermined.
- Jan. 28, 2017 – The State Fire Marshal says the fire was intentionally set.
- May 25, 2017 – The fire is ruled intentional by Homeland Security and a new ISP detective takes over the case.
- June 23, 2017 – The Carroll County prosecutor asks investigators not to release info.
- June 26, 2017 – A fire investigator with the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office resigns after questions about investigation arise.
- Aug. 26, 2017 – A new reward poster is released.
- Nov. 11, 2017 – Carroll County Prosecutor Rob Ives announces he’s stepping down.
- Jan. 1, 2018 – New prosecutor Nicholas McLeland takes the post.
- Jan. 8, 2018 – Todd Trent is named the new fire chief in Flora.
What happened remains a secret
The biggest mystery in Flora lies inside the corner house. State investigators have said the fire that killed the girls was arson, but what exactly happened is shrouded in secrecy.
A man named Mike Vergon is one of the people who has been inside the house since the fire. He runs his own fire investigation company. He was hired by the mom of the four girls and her attorney. He has not worked with them for months but said he still thinks about the house and the case often.
Justice for the Girls: Fire investigator speaks
Vergon spent more than 15 years as a certified fire investigator with the ATF before starting his own company. He has been to more than 1,000 fire scenes and investigated this one just weeks after it happened. There are still things he does not want to share.
Here is an exchange from an interview with Vergon and I-Team 8’s Stephanie Zepelin.
- Vergon: Where I thought the fire started is where it started.
- Zepelin: And that is where?
- Vergon: I can’t really say right now because…and I’ll tell you why. If we get to a point in the investigation that they make an arrest, the only people that should know where the fire started is the person who set it and the investigators.
Vergon told I-Team 8 he believes the fire was an arson but that the goal was not to kill the children. He is also not sure whether everything possible is being done to solve the case.
“I don’t think it’d hurt to call all the agencies in,” said Vergon. “It never hurts to have a fresh set of eyes look at something and share all of the information, not just some of the information.”
The case has already been reviewed by Indiana State Police, the State Fire Marshal and the Indianapolis Fire Department. However, Vergon thinks more fresh eyes will be needed for the case to be solved.
He also wants the family to know people still care.
“I just hope someday there’s an answer,” Vergon said.
Vergon says working smoke alarms may be the only thing that could have saved the girls.
The girls’ mother has filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against their landlord, claiming there were no working smoke detectors. I-Team 8 reached out to the mother for an interview, but she declined based on the advice of her attorney.
Community looks back on tragic fire
The Flora community is finding new ways to keep their people safe as they look back to the tragic loss of the four girls.
Justice for the Girls: Community looks back on tragic fire
Community members say the girls barely get brought up these days outside of the anniversary of the fire. But just like the house, thoughts of the girls and who may have set the fire are still there today.
The town came together after the loss of the sisters. Every year, they still gather to place flowers on the home’s porch in remembrance.
“It was a shock to the town,” Joyce Simpson said. “These four little girls would always step outside and wave at you when you were going by. They were on a cheerleading squad. They were beautiful little girls. And I can’t imagine somebody doing this to them.”
Many people rallied around fundraisers like Flora’s “4 Angels” cookbooks.
“We’ve raised $20,000,” Simpson said.
That money is supposed to go to anyone who can help lead to an arrest. It will go to the town if no answers come by 2025.
The family has moved away, the fundraising has died down and hope is fading that answers will ever come.
“As long as it’s been, I don’t think anybody will come forward,” Simpson said. “I’m hoping there is, but I don’t think … I think it’s too late.”
But that doesn’t mean what happened to the girls has been forgotten. As the investigation continues, the house still stands on the town’s main street – boarded up and charred – serving as a daily reminder of tragedy.
“You’d be very hard pressed to find one person in the town of Flora that doesn’t want to figure out what happened to the girls,” Carroll County Councilman Ethan Brown said. “That’s for sure. Everybody still is working to try to solve this mystery and all that and what happened and I think we’ll get there.”
Brown runs a restaurant down the street from the home. He says ever since the Flora arson and the double homicide of teen girls in neighboring Delphi, the town has been working hard to ensure yet another tragedy doesn’t happen this close to home.
“This stuff never happens here,” Brown said. “To have it happen back-to-back with the Delphi murders is just horrible.”
Community members say if you know anything, please come forward and bring these girls justice. If you’d like to contribute to the Flora’s “4 Angels” cookbook fund, you can purchase one from Joyce Simpson by calling her at 574-967-4858.
Where the investigation stands
Indiana State Police is leading the investigation. I-Team 8’s Richard Essex recently sat down with ISP Superintendent Doug Carter.
Carter says that detectives have not completely cleared anyone in the case and that they are still following tips and re-examining evidence.
“Flora has been very personal matter to me. There are many people that probably don’t believe that’s the case, I have a rock over there. I see those four little girls’ names every day, I believe that case is solvable but we have got to be able to talk to everybody involved,” said Carter.
Carter would not talk to News 8 about any specific evidence that has been collected.