EUREKA — The 9-year-old boy accused of setting a fire that killed five people in a mobile home near Goodfield in April appeared in court Monday to hear a judge explain the charges against him.
The boy sat with court-appointed public defender Peter Dluski of Pekin, who often draped his arm around the boy. Together, they listened to Woodford County Judge Charles Feeney list the eight felony counts that include five counts of murder and three counts of arson.
The boy is accused of setting a fire at 14 Cypress Court in the Timberline Trailer Court, north of Goodfield, about 11:15 p.m. April 6. Kathryn Murray, 69; Jason Wall, 34; Rose Alwood, 2; Damaien Wall, 2; and Ariel Wall, 1, died from smoke inhalation, according to Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman.
Katie Alwood and the boy, whom she previously identified as her son Kyle, escaped the blaze. Ariel Wall and Damien Wall were the children of Katie, and her fiance, Jason Wall. Rose Alwood was a niece, and Murray was Katie's grandmother.
The boy, who is charged as a juvenile, is too young to be taken into custody. According to information shared during the 30-minute hearing, he is living with foster guardians who are his father’s parents. The boy's father also attended the hearing, which was closed to the public but open to the media.
Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger filed charges earlier this month. During the arraignment, Feeney took time to make sure the boy understood what was going on.
“In reading these charges, I am not saying it is true, but it is just an allegation,” Feeney said. “The state says it is true, but it hasn’t been proven yet.”
Feeney often used examples in his explanations to the boy, who sat quietly during the hearing. Through Dluski, the boy asked for clarification on words such as “alleged” and “arson.”
“If I said you were wearing a purple shirt today, that would be an allegation, something that is alleged, but it isn’t true,” Feeney said. “Under the law, if certain things are true, then you committed a crime and you would be a delinquent minor. It is very important that you understand what we are doing here.”
The boy answered several direct questions from the judge, such as if he understood what he's accused of doing. He answered "no" the first time, but said "yes" after the judge more carefully explained what the charges mean. Both the boy and Dluski were each handed copies of the court paperwork.
If the boy is convicted, Minger said the state likely would seek a term of probation. Due to a gag order imposed on everyone connected with the case, Minger could not discuss specifics, but did talk briefly with reporters after the hearing.
“We cannot talk about the case and that goes for attorneys and family members,” he said.
The judge issued the gag order based on a request from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after interviews Katie Alwood did with a Chicago newspaper and a CBS News reporter. She did not appear in the courtroom Monday.
Minger said it took six months to file charges because his office wanted to be thorough in the investigation.
“We were waiting on reports and the completion of some investigations,” he said. “There is no statute of limitations on something like this. Justice not served is justice denied.”
The charges are valid despite the boy's age, he explained.
“It was difficult” to sit near a 9-year-old defendant facing such extreme charges, he said. “I have a 9-year-old at home.”
If convicted, the boy could be on probation until he turns 21. He would not be jailed unless he fails to abide by the terms and conditions set forth in his sentencing.
“On probation, you would likely be required to have counseling, go to school, not use drugs, have an evaluation of your mental and physical health, or possibly pay restitution for the damage from the fire,” Feeney told the boy.
Minger told the judge he anticipates filing some motions in the next few weeks that will likely require a lengthy hearing. The next court date is set for Nov. 22.
Contact Kevin Barlow at (309) 820-3238. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_barlow