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Long Trail Led to Arrest of Mother in Children’s Deaths : Investigation: House fire 2 1/2 years ago looked like a tragic accident. Woman is now charged with murder.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the days after a pre-dawn fire destroyed their home, killing their three small children, Jo Ann and Ronald Parks received a huge outpouring of support. Friends and well-wishers--many from their own blue-collar community in Bell--sent cards, flowers and, most of all, cash. The tally of donations reached nearly $35,000.

But even as sympathizers were opening their hearts, arson and homicide detectives were quietly opening a case. As the investigation unfolded--through on-the-scene inspections, crime-lab analyses, interviews and public-record checks--authorities found themselves traveling a labyrinth of strange horrors and blind alleys. A month ago--2 1/2 years after the fire--they arrested Jo Ann Parks on suspicion of murder.

Each new bit of evidence grated harshly against the instinctive belief that no mother kills her own children, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Dinko Bozanich, who is preparing for Parks’ preliminary hearing in coming weeks.

“In my own 20-plus years’ experience, I’ve not personally had such cases or even been aware of any . . . cases where a mother has been charged with burning her own children to death,” Bozanich said.

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The case stands out as one of the most unusual--and difficult--in recent memory, providing a vivid look at the complex world of arson investigation, police said. Extensive media coverage of the fire figured prominently in the course of events. So did a strangely cut extension cord and an unburned patch of carpet in a small boy’s bedroom.

Investigators tracked down witnesses in Fontana and Victorville, combed birth and marriage records in California and elsewhere to explore Jo Ann Parks’ conflicting identities, and searched vainly to find significance in the crib death of Jo Ann Parks’ first son, who died several years before the fatal fire.

Gradually, police pieced together what they described as the disturbing story of a troubled family, one seemingly weaned on misfortune.

“I don’t have any idea how many hours went into it,” Sgt. Jacque Franco, a Los Angeles County homicide detective, said of the investigation. “It was difficult because obviously it’s a sensitive case. A mother killing her three children is something the public doesn’t want to deal with.”

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While Jo Ann Parks, 25, is being held without bail, the police investigation is continuing. Her husband, Ronald, who was not home when the fire broke out, also has been a suspect, according to court records. But police declined to comment on whether he is now a target of their investigation.

Neither the Parkses nor their civil attorney, Robert Coleman, who did not return phone calls, could be reached for comment.

But Paul Garman, a family friend who regularly attended Christian Science religious services with the Parkses, said the arrest came as a shock to the couple. Garman described Jo Ann Parks as a friendly, quiet woman who struggled through hard times to raise her children.

“She’s trusting in God to see her through it,” Garman said of the arrest. “She has a deep faith in God.”

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On the night of the fire, the Parkses appeared to be rebuilding their lives. After a stretch of unemployment, Ronald Parks had been rehired at a Los Angeles ice cream plant and the family had saved enough money to leave a homeless shelter and rent the three-bedroom, converted garage in Bell.

Though cramped, the $600-a-month home afforded one bedroom for the two girls--Ro Ann, 2, and Jessica, 1--and a bedroom for Ronald Parks III, 4. The family had been in the home less than a week--and packing boxes still filled the living room--on the night of April 8, 1989, when Ronald Parks left to work the night shift. Jo Ann later told police that she was awakened after midnight by the screams of her children.

When she opened her bedroom door, she was met by a blast of heat, smoke and flames, she said. Jo Ann grabbed the phone, but it was dead. Rushing outside, she got a neighbor to call for help, but by the time firefighters arrived, the $47,000 structure was almost fully engulfed. It was later declared a total loss.

The children were found in their bedrooms. The 4-year-old was wedged in his closet, as if hiding from the inferno.

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Burn patterns showed that the blaze began in the living room, where several electrical cords fed a television, a videocassette recorder and a fan. County fire investigator William J. Franklin reported no evidence of electrical shorting. But he said the fire appeared consistent with “resistance heating” of the cords because of packing boxes placed on top of them--a surprisingly common cause of accidental fires, he said in a later interview.

“You mistreat electrical wiring and it’s going to burn you,” Franklin commented.

However, the fire-scene investigation took an urgent turn after a phone call Bell Police Sgt. William Talbott received three days after the blaze from Kathy Dodge, a former friend of Jo Ann Parks.

Dodge learned of the incident from a newspaper account and her accusation was blunt: “Those children were murdered,” she said.

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Talbott listened while Dodge talked of a fire that had ravaged the Parkses’ rental home in Lynwood almost exactly a year earlier. At the time, investigators had attributed it to an accidental overload on an electrical cord.

Though the Lynwood blaze injured no one, Jo Ann Parks allegedly later made what Dodge considered a very strange statement. According to Dodge, Jo Ann Parks said: “If Ron had come home five minutes later, Jessica would be dead and we’d be rich.”

The statement, now part of court files, prompted police to visit Dodge in Fontana, where she had lived next door to the Parkses in the months after the Lynwood fire. There, Talbott heard Dodge make other unsettling allegations that would become part of the voluminous court file: Jo Ann Parks, she said, regularly fed the baby cough syrup to keep her passive and quiet.

The older two children were “always dirty” and often running around naked, Dodge said. Jo Ann and her husband--whom Dodge described as an electrical wizard--made odd comments, Dodge said, about the electrical outlets in their apartment, allegedly saying they emitted sparks, a phenomenon that Dodge had never seen in her own apartment.

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Dodge went on to say that the Parkses were “lawsuit-happy . . . always talking about suing somebody . . . to get rich.”

Garman, the family friend from the Christian Science church, disputed the assertions in an interview, saying he had visited the Parkses “a couple times” and never saw the children fed cough syrup or running naked. He also said he had never heard the family talk about suing anyone.

“They were young parents struggling with three kids, many times out of work,” Garman said. “It was definitely hard on them, but I don’t think they were any more neglectful than any other young parents I’ve seen.”

On the day that Dodge was interviewed--three days after the deaths of the Parks children--Jo Ann and Ronald Parks filed suit in Los Angeles Municipal Court against the owner of the home in Lynwood, charging negligent maintenance. They would file a second such suit 11 months later against the owners of the home in Bell, seeking $300,000 in wrongful-death damages.

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Though apparently unaware of the lawsuit, fire officials made a return visit to the Bell home. This time, scouring the scene, they uncovered a piece of electrical cord “where the insulation appeared to have been cut from the wiring itself.” In their later report, arson investigators also cited “what appeared to be knife cuts within this insulation. . . . (And) this wiring was covered with what appeared to be drapery material . . . which was wrapped around the wiring.”

More evidence was found in the boy’s bedroom, outside the closet. Amid the debris was an unburned piece of carpet and a badly charred hamper. Investigators said that “when the remains of the hamper were placed over the protected area (of carpet), it matched in configuration.” The clear inference to investigators was that someone had blocked the closet door shut, trapping the young child inside.

Police work now intensified. Talbott and a colleague met with the Parkses one day at a restaurant, where the couple described the television and videocassette recorder as new. As far as they knew, the cords were in good condition.

“Mr. and Mrs. Parks made several remarks about seeing sparks coming from the electrical outlets in the house,” Talbott reported later, taking note of the couple’s demeanor. “We both felt Mr. Parks was nervous and noticed how he would ‘clean up’ behind any statements made by Mrs. Parks.”

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Not long after the interview, the Parkses left town, traveling to Colorado on vacation and to Missouri to visit Ronald’s parents. While away, Ronald wrote to co-workers to thank them for cash donations. “This is the worst chapter in our experience,” he said, “but because of your kindness . . . our burden has been lightened.”

Arson investigators were now examining what they called “suspicious areas” of heavy burning in the girls’ bedroom and in the hallway. The question--whether fire had been deliberately set at those points--was difficult to answer, because it was equally possible that household items in those areas had been ignited by intense heat and flames.

Meanwhile, the county crime lab supported the arson team’s conclusions about the damaged electrical cord, citing “obvious evidence of (its) being cut.”

Bell police called in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau. In September, sheriff’s detectives located a former Fontana neighbor of the Parkses named Linda Frances Bolton, now living in Rancho Cucamonga. Bolton alleged that the Parkses’ baby daughter ate dog food off the floor and was kept in a small tent on the bed. Bolton also said the young boy feared the closet and that the children were put to bed by 7 every night.

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Bolton also alleged that the Parkses used cough syrup as a pacifier and said the children ran around naked, supporting the earlier allegations made by Dodge. News of the fatal Bell fire had prompted Bolton to write a letter to welfare authorities, a missive that now was turned over to police. “Several of us suspected that the children were being sexually abused by both parents, but we could never prove anything,” Bolton had written.

Garman, the family friend, said sexual abuse was “definitely not” practiced and said the Parkses at times “broke down” in grief because of the deaths. “It took a lot of prayer to get them through it,” he said.

While investigators tracked leads with clandestine silence, the Parkses were becoming eager to hear their conclusions. In a letter to Talbott six months after the tragedy, Ronald Parks asked to be kept informed and expressed gratitude for so exhaustive an effort.

“It hurts badly that our three precious little ones were engulfed in flames and smoke and could not be rescued,” Parks wrote. “If we are fortunate, my wife somewhere down the line may be able to enjoy another baby of our own. Then . . . (the information) you supply . . . will help us to preserve this baby from going through the smoke and flames the other three were not spared.”

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Months dragged on. Investigators juggling myriad other cases managed to find other former neighbors in far-flung places, and their statements were added to the expanding file. Linda Uhlig of Victorville recalled Jo Ann Parks’ use of cough syrup and said that the baby, who was 1 year old at the time, “wouldn’t crawl like a normal baby. She would slither, pull herself along,” Uhlig told police, “and you could tell something was definitely wrong.”

Further interviews, including another with Dodge, painted Jo Ann Parks as the dominant parent. She had been molested as a young girl or teen-ager, a former neighbor claimed in an inverview with investigators, and had fled from home. She and Ronald were married just a week after meeting at a self-service laundry. Both parents, according to Dodge, were “obsessed” with Disney mementoes and cartoons.

“They would come over . . . and invite us to watch ‘Peter Pan’ or ‘Lady and the Tramp'--just watch cartoons at their house,” Dodge recalled. “And cartoons are cute, but I don’t want to visit a family and be with two grown-ups and watch cartoons.”

The coroner’s autopsy revealed no evidence of drugs or alcohol in the bodies of the three children. Detectives obtained time cards from the ice cream plant showing that Ronald Parks was indeed there the night of the fire; clearly, he did not leave until he was told of the blaze during a phone call.

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Still, investigators pressed on. Ronald Parks’ former supervisors and co-workers told police how he had quit working at the ice cream factory soon after the fire. They also told of their own anger when Parks had accepted their donations and left to travel, sending back postcards saying he and his wife were having a good time.

“Strange,” police jotted in a report.

But Garman, who also received postcards from the Parkses, called the tenor of them merely “informational.” He added, “I was just grateful they were trying to make a life for themselves.”

As the investigative file thickened, the anniversary of the fire passed with police believing they had a strong case. However, as Sgt. Frank Salerno of the county Homicide Bureau noted in an interview, much of the evidence was circumstantial. As bad as it sounded, testimony to Jo Ann Parks’ alleged poor parenting “doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a killer,” Salerno said. “There are a lot of bad parents out there.”

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Investigators struggled to pull together “a totality” of physical evidence and character assessments. Private consultants were brought in to augment the county crime lab’s findings.

Only days after the Parkses filed suit over the fatal Bell fire, one of those consultants, electrical-fire specialist Robert W. Armstrong, issued a report based on tedious microscopic inspection of the damaged electrical cord. Armstrong found “no evidence of localized heating” from within the cord, concluding that “the fire was not of electrical origin.”

An “accident reconstruction” specialist was hired by private attorneys defending against the Parkses’ lawsuit. Examining circuit-breakers and electrical panels, the consultant determined that the home’s electrical system was safe and in compliance with building codes at the time of the blaze.

Detectives spent the following months chasing down leads that amounted to nothing. Jo Ann Parks was found to have used two other identities--Josefina Ann Garcia, born in May, 1963, and Jo Ann Plekker, her actual maiden name, born in February, 1966. For a time, the discovery cast doubt on whether she was the natural mother, but police were able to determine that Jo Ann Parks had been using both Garcia and Plekker as maiden names.

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Many months were spent looking into the death of David Plekker, Jo Ann’s first son, who was born before her marriage to Ronald Parks. The 2-month-old baby succumbed to crib death in 1983. However, the boy--who had been given up for adoption--was living in a foster home at the time and investigators believed there was no foul play.

But by that point in the arson investigation, police were ready to arrest. Jo Ann Parks was taken into custody near St. Louis, where the couple had moved to care for Ronald’s ailing father. She and Ronald were both working in a nursing home run by Christian Scientists, where employees had never heard them discuss the deaths of their children.

“They were nice, caring, loving people,” recalled Paul Smith, an employee at the home. “There wasn’t any indication they were anything but nice people.”

Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez and Tina Griego contributed to this story.

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