Victim's sister shocked to hear Modesto landlord's conviction overturned

jnsbranti@modbee.comApril 23, 2013 

The fiery death of Michelle Jones and her two children devastated her family in 1997. That anguish has been rekindled by news the Modesto landlord convicted of murdering them soon may go free.

Two federal judges have ruled George Souliotes is "actually innocent" because the chemical evidence used to convict him was incorrectly interpreted by what is being called faulty science.

After 16 years behind bars, Souliotes could be released next month.

Jones' sister, Valerie Kephart, is shocked by the ruling and baffled that such errors could have been made. "All our lives have been ruined by this fire, one way or another," Kephart told The Bee on Tuesday after hearing Souliotes' conviction had been overturned. "What if I owe him an apology?"

Kephart had been convinced Souliotes set the 3 a.m. house fire that killed his tenants — Michelle, 30, Daniel, 6, and Amanda Jones, 3½.

Like the jury members who convicted Souliotes, Kephart believed prosecutors when they said he started the blaze to cash in on a fire insurance policy.

The chemical evidence, an eyewitness account and assertions that Souliotes was in financial trouble all added up to his guilt, Kephart figured.

But since hearing that new scientific tests prove the compound found on Souliotes' shoes didn't match the chemicals found at the scene and that fire experts now aren't sure whether it was arson, Kephart is having doubts about whether he did it.

"I never heard none of this before," said Kephart, 49, who now lives in Bakersfield.

For more than a decade, the Northern California Innocence Project has tried to convince people that Souliotes isn't guilty.

His attorneys contend that the so-called eyewitness couldn't have seen Souliotes do what she testified he did, and they created an elaborate video re-enactment to prove it.

They insist that Souliotes was financially solvent at the time, noting he was in the process of selling that rental house for more than its insured value.

Those volunteer lawyers represented Souliotes through two rounds of state court appeals, then pleaded their case to federal judges. Finally this month, they prevailed.

Souliotes, 72, continues to fight for his freedom, however, as state officials consider appealing the judges' ruling and local prosecutors debate whether to retry him.

"This is horrible all the way around," Kephart said. "This guy has spent his golden years in prison. He's an old man now."

Kephart still mourns for her younger sister, whom she recalls as a cancer survivor who "was a little wild."

Michelle Jones and her husband, Daniel Jones Sr., were in the midst of moving out of that Ronald Avenue house. But on New Year's Day in 1997, a terrible flood in south Modesto altered their plans.

"That flood stopped them because the mobile home they were going to move into was half underwater," Kephart recalled. Because many of their belongings already had been removed from Souliotes' rental house, "they were all sleeping together there on a mattress on the floor."

When the fire erupted, Daniel Jones Sr. wasn't home. He was off at work as a truck driver.

"Her poor husband. They tried to pin it on him," Kephart recalled about the early hours of the investigation. She said losing his family crushed Daniel Jones, and she's since lost touch with him. "He went off the deep end."

Valerie and Michelle's mother, Francine Correa, died in 2006, as did Daniel Jones' mother, Jewel Davis.

"I'm all there is left in my family to speak for my sister," Kephart said. "I've got to settle this."

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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