Playing With Fire

Even as they began sifting through the cinders in 1994, police figured they knew who set the Phillips apartment fire that nearly killed two little girls. But arson has a way of destroying all the evidence.

On a cold March night in 1994, 5-year-old Cissy Cannon invited her 8-year-old friend Lacey Van Wagner to spend the night at her home in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was the first time Lacey had slept over, and the girls squealed and talked until late, prompting Cissy's mother, Kelly Alvarado, to implore them to be quiet so she and Cissy's brothers Keith and Kevin could sleep.

At around 2 a.m., Alvarado would later tell police, she was awakened by the sounds of a heated argument coming from the apartment above her, where Cheryl Partlow lived with her friend Kenny Hollingsworth. Alvarado's new husband José had just started a job in California, and she was alone with the kids. She climbed the stairs and asked the couple to pipe down, and Hollingsworth told her everything was okay. Shortly afterward, Alvarado would later recall, she heard two people get into a car and drive off. She didn't know who they were.

Asleep in their unit in the basement, apartment manager Kay Englund and her 17-year-old son Jonathan were undisturbed by the discord upstairs, but David Bates, who lived across the hall from Partlow and Hollingsworth on the second floor of the six-unit, two-and-a-half-story building at 813 E. 21st St., would tell police that he'd been awakened by the loud quarrel. The fighting lasted an hour, Bates recounted, as did his bout with insomnia.

Christopher Ching

About the time Bates finally drifted off, Loretta Potter was returning to her second-floor apartment from her job at Mystic Lake Casino. Because of the late hour, instead of parking on the street she pulled her 1989 Ford Aerostar van into the alley behind the building and went upstairs to bed.

In an apartment building around the corner, Henry Steward and his fiancée Sareen Sandhu were playing cards with Kay Englund's nephews, Douglas and Michael Hodgeman, who lived next door with their mother. The party broke up at about 4 a.m., Steward and Sandhu later told police, whereupon they went to bed. Locked out of their mother's apartment, the Hodgemans lingered in their hosts' living room playing dice and drinking beer, they would tell investigators.

Kelly Reynolds, who lived across the alley from 813 E. 21st St., rose at 4 a.m. to get ready for the drive to Hillcrest Medical Center in Wayzata, where she worked. Less than an hour later, she pulled her red Dodge Shadow into the alley to use the communal dumpster behind 813. Later she would tell police that she'd noticed a man running down the back stairway from the second floor and joining another man who seemed to be knocking on Kay Englund's door. Both men looked at her, the 27-year-old Reynolds would recall. She also said she'd glanced at the clock on her dashboard and noted that it was 4:59 a.m.--a minute before her favorite religious radio program, The Protestant Hour, was scheduled to begin.

At about that same time, Dennis Hand would recount to investigators, he was starting his day by brewing a pot of coffee in his apartment across the street from 813 E. 21st St. He paid little attention to the voices he heard outside, he said--people were always out there talking at all hours. But at about 10 past 5 he heard what sounded like a gunshot and crackling noises. Looking out the window, he saw fire leaping over the roof of 813. He awakened his roommate, Deborah Kerola, and together they watched as people began fleeing the burning building.

Kay Englund had a cold, which caused her to wake up early. She turned on the TV and channel-surfed a bit, but after a sudden crackling noise, the power went out. Making her way to the back door to check the fuses, Englund saw an orange glow, and smoke. She called the fire department and roused her son, who grabbed his comic-book collection as the pair left the building. At the same time, David Bates's battery-operated smoke detector sounded. Before he too got out of the building, Bates pounded on the door of his sleeping neighbors' apartment, trying to alert them to the fire.

Douglas and Michael Hodgeman told police they'd been drinking and playing dice when they noticed the fire, and Michael had dialed 911 while Douglas raced over to alert his Aunt Kay. When he got to the apartment, Michael recounted to investigators, he saw that two vans parked in the alley next to the building had caught fire.

Kelly Alvarado awoke to the sound of banging and an apartment filled with smoke. She stumbled around, rousing her two boys and rushing them out the door. She tried to turn on a light, but the power was off, a fact that had, she surmised, muted the electronic smoke detectors. Alvarado could hear Cissy and Lacey in Cissy's bedroom yelling for help but she couldn't find her way through the darkness and the thickening smoke. Powerless to help the girls, she stumbled through the apartment gasping for breath.

Amid the panicked cries of her mother and her friend, Cissy Cannon passed out in her pillow, cutting off the flow of oxygen to her brain.

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