Landlord's conviction tossed in deadly 1997 Modesto fire

04/22/2013 7:22 PM

04/23/2013 7:05 AM

A federal judge has overturned the triple-murder conviction of a Modesto landlord who is serving a life sentence in a 1997 house fire that killed his tenant and her two sleeping children.

Whether George Apostos Souliotes, 72, will be retried in those deaths hasn't been decided, but his defenders insist that he is an innocent man who has been wrongly imprisoned for 16 years.

"This was a terrible tragedy, but he didn't do it," insisted Linda Starr, legal director for the Northern California Innocence Project, which has been fighting to free Souliotes for a decade.

"This is such a clear-cut case of actual innocence," Starr said. "They jumped to the conclusion it was an arson fire but the faulty fire science they used has been completely discredited."

U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii gave prosecutors until May 12 to free Souliotes or take "concrete and substantial steps" to retry the case. That retrial must begin by July, unless the state attorney general's office decides to appeal the ruling.

Until then, Souliotes remains locked in state prison near Salinas.

"I always believed in my brother's innocence. Thank God there were other people who believed in him, too," his sister Aleka Pantazis said, referring to legal representation by the Innocence Project and volunteers from the Orrick law firm.

The injustice her brother has suffered "could happen to anybody," Pantazis warned. "We didn't know much in those early days, but we have learned a lot over the last 16 years."

What has been learned is that the scientific evidence linking Soulio-tes to the fire was incorrectly interpreted, according to Starr. She said Modesto fire officials did not sufficiently investigate the cause of the blaze, so what triggered it never will be known.

But that isn't what prosecutors led jurors to believe in 1999 when the case first went to trial.

The case was an emotional one, considering how Michelle Jones, 30, and her children, Daniel Jr., 6, and Amanda, 3½, died in that 3 a.m. inferno at 1319 Ronald Ave. Jones' husband, Daniel Jones Sr., was at work at the time.

Family was being evicted

The Joneses had been renting the home from Souliotes, but he was in the process of evicting them and trying to sell the house.

Souliotes was arrested the day of the fire, bail was denied and he has been imprisoned since.

In court, the prosecution's fire investigators told jurors they were certain forensic evidence proved that a liquid accelerant was used to intentionally start the blaze. They testified that the same chemical compound — called a medium petroleum distillate — was found on Souliotes' shoes and at the fire scene near where the home's entertainment center had been. That tied Souliotes to the arson.

That arson evidence, however, since has been discounted.

Starr said more advanced testing shows the chemical on Souliotes' shoes was different from the residue found at the scene. The chemicals at the scene, in fact, may not have been accelerants because such compounds now are known to exist in many household products and consumer goods.

Former Modesto Fire Capt. Thom-as Reuscher was the lead arson investigator for the Souliotes case. He said Monday that it wouldn't be right to comment about the case because "apparently, we're going to be in court again."

Stanislaus County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris indicated Monday that his office hasn't decided whether it will retry Soulio-tes.

"This case is still with the attorney general's office, and when returned to us, we will expeditiously determine if a case that was tried so long ago can be resurrected," Harris wrote in an email to The Bee. "Defense delays never favor the truth, and if we are unable to proceed now after all these years, will that bring the three victims back to life?"

A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the office is "reviewing the judge's decision and whether or not it will be appealed."

The technical reason the retrial was ordered is because the federal judge determined that Souliotes received ineffective representation during his trial. Neither of his previous attorneys, Timothy Rien and Harry Traback, could be reached for comment Monday.

Souliotes went through two trials. The first ended in a hung jury, and the second ended sooner than expected because no defense witnesses were called.

About 50 prosecution witnesses testified. Key among them was a neighbor, Monica Sandoval, who was 19 at the time. Sandoval testified that she saw Souliotes driving his distinctive, van-size Winnebago motorhome back and forth in front of the Ronald Avenue home that night.

Sandoval said she saw that motorhome stop, and then a person got out and carried a white sack to the rear of the house. The fire began moments later.

Starr said even prosecutors agree that Sandoval "was a lousy witness" because she changed her story several times.

Sandoval's motives for testifying have been questioned. Souliotes' defenders note that an unrelated criminal assault charge against Sandoval was dropped after she became the prosecution's star witness.

Starr is confident that Souliotes would prevail if tried again, especially because the chemical evidence linking him to arson has been debunked. But she doesn't think an innocent man should be forced to endure more time behind bars.

"What everyone should do is stop fighting this case," Starr said. "A mistake was made. Let this man go free."

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


TIMELINE

Jan. 15, 1997: Michelle Kim Jones, 30, and her two children, 3-year-old Amanda and 6-year-old Daniel Jr., are critically burned in an early morning fire at their Ronald Avenue home in Modesto. Mother and daughter die at hospitals that morning. Police arrest George Souliotes, 56, the landlord, that afternoon on two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of arson, saying he started the fire using a flammable liquid. Husband and father Daniel Jones, 32, a truck driver for Safeway in Tracy, arrives home from work about 8 a.m., unaware of the tragedy.

Jan. 16, 1997: Daniel Jones Jr. dies at Children's Hospital Oakland.

Jan. 24, 1997: Souliotes pleads innocent in Stanislaus County Superior Court to three counts of first-degree murder plus a single count of arson.

Feb. 5, 1997: The Bee reports that court documents say a witness, Monica Sandoval, put a man at the scene of the crime who "approximately matched the description of the suspect." She identified Souliotes' Winnebago as "the exact model and type she observed" at the scene just before the fire erupted.

Oct. 9, 1998: A Stanislaus judge grants a change of venue. But rather than move the Souliotes trial to San Joaquin County, attorneys for the prosecution and defense agree to pick the jury there and bus the panel to Modesto.

Feb. 16, 1999: Trial begins with opening statement by defense attorney Timothy Rien, who suggests that Michelle Jones may have started the fire, trying to commit suicide and kill her own children because she was distraught over the family's financial plight. Prosecutor Dave Harris tells the jury that all the evidence points to Souliotes.

March 24, 1999: A mistrial is declared after the jury reports that it is hopelessly deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction.

April 3, 2000: A second trial begins, again in Stanislaus County but with jurors from San Joaquin County.

May 8, 2000: The jury, deliberating in Stockton, takes less than five hours to convict Souliotes.

May 25, 2000: A jury spares Souliotes' life, recommending that he spend the rest of his life in prison. A judge later hands down that sentence.

July 8, 2012: The Bee reports that a federal judge rules that Souliotes has shown "actual innocence" and may challenge his conviction on other grounds. The judge upholds the findings of a magistrate who examined the evidence against Souliotes and concluded that no reasonable juror would have convicted him given the state of the evidence today.

April 12: A California federal district court judge overturns Souliotes' conviction.

Source: Bee archives

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