The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 26, 2012

Wheaton fire investigators say cause could soon be disclosed

By Wally Kennedy

WHEATON, Mo. — As the first funeral took place on Monday, investigators said they could reveal today or Wednesday the cause of the Thanksgiving Day fire that killed five people in the Blue Ridge Apartments in Wheaton.

Detective Doug Henry, lead investigator for the Barry County Sheriff’s Department, on Monday said a joint investigation with the state Division of Fire Safety could wrap up soon.

“We hope to be done by Wednesday,” Henry said. “The cause, which will be released by the fire marshal’s office, is still undetermined at this time.”

Two state investigators were dispatched to the scene on Thursday, including the supervisor of the division’s fire investigation unit. The division was still actively investigating the fire on Monday, said Mike O’Connell, communications director for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

Henry said there is no indication that the fire was arson. All five victims died of smoke inhalation, according to Barry County coroner’s office.

Services for one of the victims, Jonathan “Jay” Gemmecke, 32, were conducted Monday in Wheaton. Gemmecke, who grew up in Wheaton, worked in maintenance at International Dehydrated Foods in Monett, according to McQueen Funeral Home.

Investigators have determined that the fire might have started on a couch in an upstairs apartment occupied by Gemmecke and Molly Doherty, 54, another victim, on the southwest side of the building. The two-story building had eight two-bedroom apartments.

Records show Gemmecke suffered critical injuries in a stabbing that took place the night of Sept. 12 in Monett. Gemmecke, who was living in Cassville at the time, drove himself to Cox Monett Hospital. He later was flown to a Springfield hospital.

Gemmecke told officers that he was stabbed by a man on a bicycle outside of a Monett residence. A 32-year-old woman at the residence was arrested in connection with the assault.

Henry said he was aware of the stabbing incident involving Gemmecke, but that there was no connection to the fire.

Doherty had lived in Wheaton since 1983. She was employed as a photo lab specialist at the Wal-Mart store in Monett. Services, under the direction of McQueen Funeral Home, will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Wheaton United Methodist Church.

Also killed in the fire were Mary Henning, 43; her 8-year-old son, Brandon Thurston; and Henning’s fiance, Corey Hasche, 23.

Henning, a 1989 graduate of Carl Junction High School, was disabled, according to the funeral home. The funeral for Henning and her son, a third-grade pupil at Wheaton Elementary School, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday at Solid Rock Baptist Church in Wheaton.

Arrangements for Hasche were pending on Monday, according to McQueen Funeral Home.

Sixteen other occupants escaped from the burning building without physical injury. Clothing, food and other necessities are being distributed at the Wheaton Community Center. The American Red Cross, which dispatched five caseworkers to Wheaton, has found temporary housing for most of the survivors.

The apartment building and another nearby are managed by Bell Management of Joplin. Rick Schroeder, president of Bell Management, said Monday that he was advised by legal counsel to not comment on the fire.

Schroeder said he had been interviewed Monday by a fire investigator about the apartment building’s smoke detectors and fire-alarm system.

A relative of one of the victims has expressed concern about whether the apartments contained functioning smoke detectors and whether a fire-alarm system had been activated. Witnesses in the apartment building at the time of the fire said smoke detectors and other alarms were activated by the fire.

Bell Management manages about 3,700 apartments in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.