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.

Kay Englund says she was shocked to hear that her nephew had been arrested for allegedly setting fire to her building. "I've known them since they were little," she says. "They got into the typical trouble, but nothing like this. Still, if they were capable of setting those other fires, they could have done ours. This still has to sink in."

When the Hodgeman boys were little, Englund recalls, their father used to take them out to watch fires. "He would listen to the scanner, then bring them out to the scene," she remembers. "They went to neighborhood fires, and they were even at that big fire downtown on Thanksgiving around 10 years ago." Englund says the boys were mischievous and active but also notes that they had drinking problems. She says her son Jonathan, now 21, was close to Douglas Hodgeman and that "he's just furious that they would start a fire in a building we were in."

Susan Johnson, a former downstairs neighbor of the Hodgemans, remembers all the brothers as friendly and likable and says it took her a long time to realize they were vindictive as well. She also recalls their first meeting: "They were moving in. We introduced ourselves and were chatting, and Dougie ran upstairs to bring down a photo album. We thought, you know, they're going to show us a family photo album with family pictures. But when we opened it, we saw that it was full of pictures of different fires at their previous home."

Johnson adds that she believes Michael Hodgeman had something to do with the 21st Street fire and points to the mysterious "Roxie" as proof: "There was no Roxie," she says. "I knew Doug's girlfriend and her name wasn't Roxie and she didn't live in that building. Michael probably made her up to pin the fire on his brother."

Anthony Holmes, too, knows about the Hodgemans and arson. "I used to give them work raking leaves and stuff," he says. "I thought we were good friends and I thought they were good kids. I wouldn't have ever believed they set my garage and all those other fires if the neighbors hadn't seen them do it." Holmes says Douglas Hodgeman never paid him any of the court-ordered $6,000 in restitution, and he expresses no surprise at the news of new arson charges.

"I told the prosecutor at the trial and his parole officer, 'There are two things you can't stop: a firebug and a rapist,'" Holmes recounts. "I told them they were going to do it again. It's in their blood."

Kristina Cannon still has long blond hair that her mother refuses to cut. She still tries to lord over the brothers she adores. And she still loves a purple dinosaur named Barney.

But that is all that's recognizable from the Cissy Cannon of four years ago.

Now 10 years old, Cissy doesn't remember how to play with the Barbie dolls she used to prize. She can't hold a spoon to her mouth or sit up by herself or tell her mother when she's wet, and she has to be fed through a tube. She speaks an unintelligible language and has only recently advanced to the mental level of a 4-year-old. On good days, she's able to see.

"She asked me four times for 'two Cissys,'" says Kelly Alvarado. "She wanted another one, one that can speak, play, not have to go through all this. She wanted another one to be the Cissy she was."

Although her youngest child Keith doesn't remember the fire, Alvarado says it has traumatized her eldest, 11-year-old Kevin. "He acts out," she explains. "In the third grade he refused to do anything in school, even sign his name. He's been a handful. He's still in counseling for nightmares and depression."

Alvarado has packed away her daughter's old toys and pictures at their new home in California and has struggled to accept that her condition will improve only marginally. She doesn't think about the future, because doctors predict Cissy won't be in it: She is not expected to live past her 21st birthday. Still, Alvarado keeps her daughter active. Cissy attends a special school for the handicapped, and she's a member of the Girl Scouts.

"The doctors never thought she would improve this much," says her mother. "But she was always stubborn. I don't know how much more to expect, but what I have is more than I should have had.

"It was hard hearing her yell and not being able to help her," Alvarado says of the fire. "Maybe I could have gotten her out and things wouldn't have been so bad. Having someone depend on you and not being able to help is hard to deal with. I have to live with that. I don't want to let her down again."

Half a continent away, Lacey Van Wagner still lives at her home on Elliot Avenue, only a block from the site of the fire that left her scarred for life. Often when the 13-year-old is asked about the scars on her legs, she lies. "I make stuff up like, 'It's a birthmark,'" she says. "But I know that I'll have to accept them--sometime."

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