Judge decries delay in home inspections prior to fatal fire

January 17, 2014

WBEZ/Michael Puente
The house at 644 Sibley St. in Hammond, Ind. where three children died last week after a space heater caused a fire.

A Northwest Indiana judge says “legal smoke and mirrors” were partly to blame for the delay in city inspections for a Hammond, Ind. home where three children died in a fire last week. Hammond City Court Judge Jeffrey Harkin said at a hearing Thursday that confusion as to who actually owns the property at 644 Sibley Street prevented an inspection of the house.

“Nothing gets done and now we have three dead children,” Harkin said, decrying the responsible parties’ penchant for “pointing fingers at each other.”

The ordinance violation hearing before Harkin started with a somber statement from assistant Hammond City Attorney Kathleen Hill.

“The city’s been trying to get the property inspected. It’s a moot point at this date, judge,” Hill said.

The City of Hammond had been sending ordinance violation orders to the listed owner of the property: Real Estate Equity Solutions of Indiana, LLC. City attorneys indicate that Real Estate Equity Solutions delayed repeated requests to allow inspections of the home which had no running water nor working utilities when it caught on fire the evening of Jan. 8.

But Hammond attorney Christian Bartholomew told Harkin that his client, Equity Trust, is the actual owner headed by Joseph Wittig. Bartholomew said Wittig is actually selling the home to another person, Edwin Feliciano, who had been collecting rent from the family living in the home.

“My client knew about the ordinance violation that’s why we were talking to the city so we could schedule an inspection,” Bartholomew told WBEZ outside Hammond City Hall on Thursday. “It is always tough when you’ve got a situation that is as tragic as this one. … I can tell you I work for Joe Wittig and I tried to arrange inspections. We were trying to work things out with the city and unfortunately, it did not happen.”

In the fire, 27-year-old Andre Young suffered severe burns and continues to be listed in critical condition at Stroger Hospital in Chicago. Young suffered his injuries by trying to rescue two of his children, ages 2 and 6, who are expected to make a full recovery. But three of his other children, Jayden Young, 7 months, Dasani Young, 4 and Alexia Young 3, were all killed in the blaze.

Hammond City Attorney Kristina Kantar told WBEZ last week that the property should have been condemned and that no one should have been living there. But she says companies often make it difficult to determine who the actual owner is of a property.

Following today’s hearing, Harkin ordered Bartholomew’s client to pay $2,600 in ordinance violations related to the property.

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s NWI bureau reporter. Follow him @MikePuenteNews