Deadly Thanksgiving Day fire being investigated as homicide

William Brownlee Sr., who lived in the home at 86 Washington Street with his son and daughter-in-law, was found in the bed in his bedroom (Photo by Steve Rogers, DTL)
Staff Writer

A Thanksgiving Day fire that claimed the life of a bedridden 62-year-old West Point man is now being investigated as a homicide.

"We are assuming the victim did not set himself on fire," Police Chief Avery Cook said.

Earlier Tuesday, fire investigators ruled the fire was intentionally set and turned it over to police.

"We have ruled it incendiary, it was arson," Fire Chief Ken Wilbourne said. "We still don't have all our test results back yet to know what was used, that'll probably be another couple of weeks, but we have made that determination that something was used."

Clay County Coroner Alvin Carter said Tuesday evening he had not yet received autopsy results from the state medical examiner's office.

William Brownlee Sr., who lived in the home at 86 Washington Street with his son and daughter-in-law, was found in the bed in his bedroom. No heater was found and Brownlee was not a smoker, Wilbourne said.

Those facts, and the intense heat that burned especially in the victim's bedroom, raised questions among fire investigators within hours after the fire and during inspections at the scene Friday and again Monday.

Cook stopped short of naming specific suspects but did say investigators have a "person of interest" and acknowledged it was correct to assume the first targets are family members.

"We're going through and confirming timelines, getting information from the home's alarm and records," Cook said. "We start inside the house and work our way out with everyone and work it down to one person. We are being methodical, we want enough to get a conviction, not just to be able to charge someone. But it's safe to say a family member is on our list. It's obviously sensitive, delicate, but we've got to look at everything and everyone."

The son and daughter-in-law were not at home when the fire broke out at about 4 p.m. Neighborhood children playing across the street spotted the fire pouring from the bedroom windows and alerted their parents, who then called 911. One neighbor approached the house to try to rescue any occupants but was driven back by the intense smoke.
The daughter-in-law arrived at the house about 10 minutes after the fire was reported, neighbors said, while the son, who was further away in Una visiting friends, took longer after being contacted by neighbors about the fire.