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April 22, 2013

From the archives: Landlord held in Modesto arson that kills family members

Here are the initial two stories that appeared in The Modesto Bee following the deaths of three family members in Modesto.

Here are the initial two stories that appeared in The Modesto Bee following the deaths of three family members in Modesto.

This story ran on Page A-1 on Jan. 16, 1997

By Truong Phuoc Khanh and Steve Elliott, Bee staff writers

A Modesto mother and her 3-year-old daughter were burned to death Wednesday when, police say, their disgruntled landlord sneaked into their north Modesto home, poured a flammable liquid in three different rooms, then set it ablaze.

A 6-year-old son was critically burned and clinging to life late Wednesday.

Police arrested George Souliotes, 56, the landlord, Wednesday afternoon on two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of arson.

Police say he let himself into the house at 1319 Ronald Ave. at about 3 a.m. Wednesday, while Michelle Kim Jones, 31, and her two children, 3-year-old Amanda and 6-year-old Daniel Jr., lay asleep inside.

Souliotes poured gasoline or something like it in the kitchen, living room and attached garage and set it ablaze, police said.

When firefighters arrived, they plunged inside the burning home and found the Joneses, all critically burned. They carried them out and started first aid.

Amanda died in the emergency room of Memorial Medical Center.

Her mother was taken to Doctors Medical Center, where she died at 3:30 p.m. of third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body.

Daniel was flown from Stanislaus Medical Center at 9 a.m. to Children's Hospital in Oakland where he was listed in critical and unstable condition at 9 p.m. in the intensive care unit. He had third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body.

The children's father, Daniel Jones, 32, a truck driver for Safeway in Tracy, was working at the time of the fire. He arrived home at about 8 a.m., unaware of the tragedy.

His cries of "Oh, God, no!" punctuated the quiet morning as he faced the charred shell of the house. His mother and sister wrapped him in their arms as he sobbed between moments of stunned silence.

Souliotes filed eviction papers against the family in December after suing them in small claims court for back rent they owed, said police Detective Lt. Skip McKune.

The Joneses were supposed to have moved out by Jan. 1, but a small trailer they bought to move into was damaged by the flood and they stayed.

Souliotes would not talk to police, so detectives said they don't know whether he set the blaze to destroy the house for insurance purposes or as an act of revenge against the family.

But McKune said Souliotes had to have seen their furniture inside the house, and whatever the motive, one thing was clear: "He intended to burn that house down."

Police were led to Souliotes by his Winnebago, which a neighbor saw cruising up and down the street several times before just before the fire.

"Her boyfriend was late," McKune said. "She was up

watching for him, and saw this Winnebago go up and back, then stop across from the Joneses' house."

The woman saw a man get out carrying what looked like a small bag or case, then walk to the back of the house. A few moments later, he came back from behind the house, hands empty, got into the small-model Winnebago and drove away.

Then flames engulfed the home.

Souliotes bought the 1,400-square-foot Ronald Avenue house, near Tully Road and Briggsmore Avenue, in 1979. He also owns the house he lives in a few blocks away on Tully Road. Police had a warrant for that house and were searching it late Wednesday.

Inside, they found paperwork that showed the Ronald home was about to be foreclosed on by the bank. Police said Souliotes is retired from Montgomery Ward.

The Joneses moved to Modesto from Manteca in May. They fell behind in their rent and Souliotes filed eviction papers against them. He also contracted with a local real estate firm to sell the house, which was listed at $89,000.

Facing eviction, the Jones family bought a $500 trailer in a River Road trailer park and were preparing to move. But the day they were to be out, floodwaters damaged their would-be new home.

At Catherine Everett Elementary School, where Daniel Jr. is a kindergartner, Principal Rob Williams visited each classroom to let students know about the tragedy. A counselor also was available to talk to the children.

Linda Holway, Daniel's teacher, described the little blond boy as quiet but ever-helpful. Anytime she asked for "helpers," Holway said, Daniel volunteered.

He has "a very kind heart," she said. "He was always the first one to raise his hand to answer questions. He didn't always know the right answer, but he always wanted to try, and that's what's important."

Michelle Jones dropped her son off at school every morning and always walked him to the classroom, Holway said. Busy at home looking after Daniel's younger sister, Jones couldn't volunteer at school, but often inquired about her son's progress, she said.

"I know the family was experiencing financial difficulties, and they were trying everything they could," Holway said.

Jones told the teacher about the trailer.

"She was so excited about starting over," Holway said. Jones considered the move as a way for the family to get its feet back on the ground, the teacher said.

Then even when the flood struck and damaged their trailer, Michelle Jones still brought canned food to school for other flood victims.

By Steve Elliott, Bee staff writer

This story ran on Page A-1 on Jan. 17, 1997

With horrible burns over half his body, the little boy who always was first in his kindergarten class to volunteer to help his teacher, first to raise his hand to answer her questions, died Thursday.

Daniel Jones Jr. was 6.

Pronounced dead at Children's Hospital Oakland late Thursday afternoon, Daniel, police said, now is the third victim of an arsonist's madness.

His sister, 3-year-old Amanda, and mother, 30-year-old Michelle Jones, died Wednesday from burns they suffered in a fire police say was set by the family's disgruntled Modesto landlord.

The landlord, George A. Souliotes, 56, was arrested Wednesday and faces three counts of murder and one of arson. He is expected to be arraigned in court this afternoon.

Authorities know of only one other triple-homicide in Modesto history, a New Year's Day massacre of three people in 1981. The man convicted of that attack, George Edward Marshall, is on death row awaiting execution.

Daniel, Amanda and Michelle Jones were asleep in their home at 1319 Ronald Ave. just before 3 a.m. Wednesday when, Modesto detectives said, Souliotes sneaked into their house, poured a flammable liquid throughout their kitchen, living room and garage, then set the house ablaze.

"The devastation in that house is incredible," said Detective Sgt. Mike Harden. "To see how ferocious that fire was, it is indescribable. That family had no chance to get out."

The children's father, Daniel Jones Sr., was at work in Tracy at the time of the fire and didn't arrive home until about 8 a.m.

Yet it was Daniel Jones Sr. who gave police their first link to Souliotes, Harden said.

A neighbor on Ronald Avenue had been up that morning, waiting and worrying about her boyfriend, who was late. Watching for him, she saw a small Winnebago motor home drive up and down the street several times, then stop in front of the Joneses' home.

The woman saw a man get out carrying a small bag or case, walk to the back of the house, then emerge a few minutes later empty-handed. Moments later, flames spread through the four-bedroom home.

"Her description of the Winnebago was thoroughly specific and exact," Harden said. "It was off-white, had a "W' and blue stripe on the side, shiny chrome wheels and a slanted roof line."

A little after 9 a.m., with Jones Sr. still crying in front of his gutted home, detectives asked him if he knew of anyone who owned a Winnebago.

"He said the landlord," Harden said.

At 10 a.m., a detective drove by Souliotes' home just five blocks away and saw a Winnebago. It matched the witness's description perfectly.

"My first reaction was, "It's absurd. How can someone cause this type of tragedy, driving something so easy to recognize?'" Harden said.

"He rolled the dice and thought no one would see him."

A few minutes later, while some detectives typed up a search warrant application, others went to Souliotes' house at 1443 Tully Road and detained him. They sat him at his kitchen table until the warrant was signed by a judge and delivered at about 3 p.m., then searched the home.

When they found evidence linking him to the fire -- police won't yet discuss the clues in detail -- they arrested Souliotes. He refused to make a statement and was booked into jail, where he was being held in a single cell, without bail, Thursday night.

The Jones family had rented from Souliotes since May, paying $675 a month. According to an eviction complaint Souliotes filed in court Nov. 9, the Joneses had not paid the November rent by Nov. 6, and Souliotes served them with a three-day notice to vacate or pay up.

In court, the family was ordered to vacate the property by Jan. 1 and pay back rent. The Joneses bought a small trailer in a River Road park, but it was damaged by the flooding the day they were to move in.

Thursday, with his home and family gone, Daniel Jones Sr. took refuge in his mother's Tracy home, said Debra Voland, who works with his mother, Jewel Davis.

"You could not have a conversation with her without her talking about her grandkids," Voland said. "They were her whole life. They had to restrain and sedate her this afternoon when she found out her grandson died."

Family friends have established a memorial fund to pay for the funeral expenses. Donations may be made to the Jones Trust at American Savings Bank, 115 W. Center St., Manteca.

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