Woman Charged in Deadly Fire Said She Was Angry Over Trash, Officials Said

NY Times - November 11, 2017

by BENJAMIN MUELLER and NATE SCHWEBER

A woman accused of starting a fire that killed two people in her Brooklyn apartment building this week told detectives she lit the fire because she was angry that garbage had been left in the hallway, officials said.

The woman, Joanna Mei, 22, was charged on Friday with two counts of murder and one count of arson. Detectives had been questioning her at the 68th Precinct station house in Bay Ridge, and a law enforcement official said they were still trying to develop a clear picture of her motive since she walked into the precinct station house a day earlier.

She had not appeared in court by early Friday evening. Her lawyer, Peter Kolp, said in a statement, “Our deepest sympathies for loss of life in this tragic incident. We need to conduct our own investigation and look forward to our client’s day in court.”

Minutes before 7 a.m. on Thursday, fire ripped through a three-story building with five apartments at 6709 11th Ave., in the Dyker Heights neighborhood. Security-camera footage from next door shows a girl in pajamas acting agitated on the sidewalk at 6:55 a.m. Moments later, a small crowd had gathered, including a man who sprinted over and waved frantically in a downward motion, apparently at people on the building’s upper floors.

By 7:01 a.m., firefighters had hoisted a ladder. The firefighters arrived within three minutes of receiving the call, said James E. Leonard, the Fire Department’s chief of department, but flames shot up from the first floor and filled the brick building.

Investigators later found a husband and wife dead in a third-floor apartment. The police identified them as Feng Xu, 56, and her husband, Xi Huang, 58.

Four other people — a 31-year-old man, a 30-year-old woman, a 4-year-old girl and a 3-month-old boy — were taken to Maimonides Medical Center in stable condition with smoke inhalation, the police said.

Three firefighters were also treated for injuries, including one who had sustained burns, officials said. They had been released from the hospital by Friday afternoon.

The Fire Department said there was no evidence of working smoke detectors in the building. On the ground floor is a nail salon, and beside it is a door leading to the apartments above.

Fire marshals sent a dog to scour the building for evidence of an accelerant that may have been used to start the blaze. The marshals determined the fire was deliberately set in and around garbage in the building’s first-floor hallway, a city official said.

Detectives were still working to piece together Ms. Mei’s past and understand her motive, the law enforcement official said.

Kevin Wu, the owner of a cellphone store next door, whose security camera captured the commotion as the fire began, said most residents, including the couple who died, hailed from the Chinese city of Taishan in the Guangdong province.

Mr. Wu described Mr. Huang as a slight man who had lived there for a little under a year. He did not know the man’s wife. Mr. Wu said he often saw Mr. Huang pacing the sidewalk and talking on his cellphone, and he added that Mr. Huang paid his cellphone bill earlier this week in the store.

“Nice man,” Mr. Wu said.

A charred door lay on the sidewalk in front of the building on Friday afternoon, resting on a mangled, partly melted baby stroller. Police tape and a police car cordoned off the front of the building.

Through smashed-out windows on the third floor, a pumpkin-colored pinwheel could be seen spinning beside a metal shelf that held a box of Legos.