A woman charged in the deaths of seven children in a South Toledo apartment fire nearly a year ago was found guilty yesterday after entering into a plea agreement in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.
Melinda Ragland, 26, mother of six of the children, pleaded no contest to seven counts of involuntary manslaughter in the commission of misdemeanor child endangering. Judge Gary Cook found her guilty and scheduled sentencing for Oct. 28.
Prosecutors did not recommend a sentence.
Conviction on one count of involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. She could be ordered to serve consecutive sentences for a total of 35 years.
Judge Cook also has the discretion to place Ragland on community control, a form of probation.
The children, who ranged in age from 7 months to 7 years, died in the fire Oct. 24 at Ragland's apartment at 5118 Norwich Rd. She was at another apartment in the complex, about 80 yards away, when the fire started.
The blaze, the worst residential fire in the city's history, claimed the lives of Ragland's children: Brian McCullough, 5; his sisters, Brionna McCullough, 2; Teairia McCullough, 7; Talia Sanders, 19 months; Tanija Sanders, 7 months, and Terri Sanders, 6. A cousin, Quanisha Kirk, 7, also died.
They were found in second-floor bedrooms in the apartment. Six of the children were under beds in a front bedroom of the four-bedroom apartment. The 7-month-old was in a crib in a rear bedroom.
Investigators believe the fire started when one of the children used a match or lighter to ignite a mattress or bedding in the rear upstairs bedroom.
All seven children died from smoke inhalation.
Andrew Lastra, an assistant county prosecutor, said Ragland needed diapers and baby formula and went to a neighbor's home, where she called the father of three of the children and asked him to pick up the items. Ragland didn't have a phone.
Ragland, who now lives with a relative on Byrneport Drive, was indicted on seven counts each of child endangering and involuntary manslaughter, which alleged the children died in the commission of felony child endangering. Conviction on those charges would have meant a maximum of 70 years in prison.
However, Mr. Lastra said proving to a jury that leaving the apartment for that amount of time was reckless or negligent would have been difficult, noting that such conduct could have been considered reasonable.
However, Mr. Lastra said the defendant's lack of care in allowing the children access to the materials that were believed to have started the fire was reckless, an element that must be shown for involuntary manslaughter.
Investigators found cigarette butts throughout the apartment, a lighter under a cushion in the living room, and an unlit candle in the home. A pack of cigarettes was in a closet in the bedroom where the fire started.
"This is no different than a parent keeping a loaded gun in the house by a bed in the night stand, and going out and leaving children alone," Mr. Lastra said.
Charles Boyk, an attorney representing Ragland, said she left the home for reasons that were honorable, and she did the best she could under the circumstances. "As a good mother, she was trying to get necessities for her children. It is probably the greatest tragedy anyone could possibly experience," he said.
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