Sunday, March 28, 1999

Eleven years later, the question remains: Did Davey Reedy really do it?

A special report: Ever since he was sent to prison for setting a fire that killed his two children, Davey Reedy has maintained his innocence.

On Aug. 10, 1987, as a hot Monday morning dawned on Southeast Roanoke, someone splashed gasoline around the back door of a white frame house and set a fire that killed two children sleeping inside.

The fire also critically burned the children's father, Davey Reedy, who escaped through a window of the burning house. By the time he was released from a hospital, Reedy had gone from victim to suspect.

A jury convicted Reedy in 1988 on circumstantial evidence. He is serving two life sentences plus 10 years in prison for torching his 18th Street house, killing his two children, Tina Marie, 4, and Michael Edward, 2.

Like many people in prison, Reedy says he is innocent.

In statements introduced at his trial and in later petitions to Roanoke Circuit Court and the Virginia Court of Appeals - which were filed without a lawyer and dismissed on technical grounds - Reedy implicates his ex-wife.

At the time of the fire, the ex-wife was angry because Reedy had obtained custody of Tina Marie and Michael Edward, his attorney argued at the trial. "Was she trying to get back at him?" by setting a fire that unintentionally killed the children, the lawyer asked.

Although the jury rejected that argument, this is what it didn't or couldn't hear:

-A baby sitter says that two days before the fire, she heard Reedy's ex-wife threaten him during an argument, saying: "If I can't have the kids, I'll see that you won't either." Two days after the fire, the woman says, she overheard the ex-wife say the fire was meant for Reedy. The woman's account is included in one of Reedy's post-trial court filings, and she has passed a polygraph test conducted for The Roanoke Times.

-Another woman says she, too, heard the ex-wife make incriminating remarks. In a statement filed with Reedy's petition to the Court of Appeals, she says that during a conversation about the fire, months after Reedy was convicted, the ex-wife said she told Reedy that "she'd get him out of her life one way or another."

-A man told Reedy's family that in 1988, during the same conversation, he heard the ex-wife say: "My ex-husband is pulling time for something that I did," according to his signed and notarized statement included in Reedy's petition.

-A neighbor says that on the morning of the fire, she saw a man and a woman leave the scene of the burning house in a small red car. Reedy claims in court papers that one week before the fire, his ex-wife tried to run him over with a small red car. Police confirm he made such a complaint at the time.

-And there's the fact that in addition to the 1987 blaze, other fires have also struck people close to the ex-wife. The father of her first child died in a Botetourt County trailer fire in 1980, and her mother died in yet another Roanoke house fire in 1995. Both those fires were determined to be accidents.

Reedy's ex-wife, who has twice changed her name since they divorced nearly 10 years ago, is not being named in this story because she was never charged in connection with any of the fires.

She declined repeated requests for comment, and did not respond to a certified letter informing her of the contents of this story.

In her defense, Roanoke police say the woman was investigated and eliminated as a suspect during the month between the 1987 fire and Reedy's indictment by a grand jury.

Sgt. Stan Smith said Reedy's ex-wife told police that, on the morning of the fire, she was with her boyfriend, her brother and several other people at an apartment that is a three-minute drive from Reedy's house.

In claiming there was not a thorough investigation, Reedy says police never interrogated the ex-wife's boyfriend, who reportedly was the closest person to her the morning of the fire. Authorities confirm there is no record of a statement from the boyfriend in police or prosecution files.

The ex-wife's brother and his girlfriend supported her alibi in statements to police. Police were under the impression at the time of the investigation that the ex-wife had passed a polygraph test, Smith said, but the test has since been determined to be inconclusive.

Still, police are satisfied with the alibi. Particularly impressive, Smith said, was the "tremendous amount of detail" provided by the girlfriend, who described how she came downstairs and saw the ex-wife in the apartment's living room around the time the fire was started at Reedy's house nearby.

Reedy's wrongful conviction argument is not without weaknesses. Some of the incriminating statements attributed to the ex-wife are disputed by other people, and the murkiness of the entire case is only deepened by the criminal records of people on both sides.

The person with the least credibility, as far as prosecutors are concerned, is Reedy. They say Reedy is still trying to frame his ex-wife, something he tried to do before by telling lies about how she was harassing him the night of the fire.

If Reedy really wanted to implicate his ex-wife and test her alibi, prosecutors argue, he had the chance at his trial.

Defense attorney Terry Grimes suggested in 1988 that the ex-wife could have set the fire, but he never called witnesses to support that theory. Instead, he argued that the prosecution's totally circumstantial case did not meet the burden of proof.

Since the trial, others also have raised questions about the evidence used to convict Reedy.

Among them: A former Norfolk detective who investigated the case after Reedy was convicted; a lawyer who reviewed Reedy's clemency petition while working for then-Gov. George Allen; a psychiatrist who treated Reedy before his trial; a prison psychologist who has seen him since the trial; an arson expert who reviewed key testimony; and a law professor who has read the trial transcript.

"It strikes me as a relatively weak circumstantial case," said Darryl Brown, who teaches criminal procedure at the Washington and Lee University School of Law. Brown agreed to review the transcript for The Roanoke Times.

Based solely on what he read, Brown said he was "a little uncomfortable" with the verdict. "I don't recall ever seeing a weaker circumstantial case that resulted in a conviction," he said.

When told of what the jury didn't hear, Brown added: "Knowing of this additional evidence certainly raises much more of a doubt in my mind about his guilt."

'One bad nightmare'

The fire at 411 18th Street S.E. was deliberately set.

That much was uncontested during a seven-day trial held in Roanoke Circuit Court in February 1988. The rest was very much contested in a case that offered no eyewitness to the crime, no confession, and no direct evidence that Reedy set the fire.

This is the way Reedy, now 43, tells it: About 6 a.m. on Aug. 10, 1987, he was asleep on the living room couch when an explosion jolted him awake. He went into the dining room and saw the adjoining kitchen engulfed in flames.

Retreating from the heat and smoke, Reedy says, he began to search for Tina Marie, who had been sleeping in a love seat next to the couch, and Michael Edward, who was in an upstairs bedroom.

As Reedy felt his way around the darkened house, smoke filled the air, flames shot along the walls, and the inside of the house heated up like an oven. It got so hot that paint blistered on the woodwork.

Reedy made it about halfway up the stairs, then turned back and dived out the living room window.

"I hope and pray to God I don't go to hell if it's anything like that, 'cause it's one bad nightmare," Reedy testified at his trial. "You stand there and feel like your flesh is coming off your body and you watch and you're feeling yourself burn."

Even worse than the burns was the 800-degree air that Reedy breathed, scorching his throat and lungs. He was airlifted to the University of Virginia Hospital's burn center in critical condition, and his family was told to prepare for the worst.

Back in Roanoke, firefighters found the two Reedy children upstairs, dead of smoke inhalation.

Tina Marie was lying on her back at the top of the staircase. She apparently died trying to help her brother in a nearby bedroom. Michael Edward was found lodged between his bed and the wall. His face was wedged in the corner in what appeared to be an effort to escape the deadly smoke.

Reedy spent the next 10 days in the hospital. Within two weeks of his release, he was facing two counts of capital murder.

Did he really do it?

Prosecutors contended in 1988 - and maintain to this day - that there was ample evidence to convict Reedy of setting the fire.

"Circumstantial cases are always subject to being second-guessed," Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell said. "We never know for sure, because we're not there. But based upon the evidence, I would have no problem in asking a jury to convict beyond a reasonable doubt."

Joel Branscom, a former assistant city prosecutor who is now Botetourt County commonwealth's attorney, and Ray Ferris, now in private practice, presented a circumstantial case that still troubles Terry Grimes, the Roanoke lawyer who represented Reedy.

"For every piece of evidence that pointed toward Davey Reedy, there seemed to be an explanation or another piece of evidence that pointed away from Reedy," Grimes said.

Here is a summary of the key evidence, gleaned from the 1,242-page trial transcript:

-What Reedy said before the fire: Paula Hannah, an acquaintance of Reedy's, was the only witness to provide a motive. She testified that about four months before the fire and shortly after they met, Reedy told her that before he let his ex-wife or the Department of Social Services get custody of the children, he'd burn the house down with them and himself inside.

Yet prosecutors conceded there was no evidence that Reedy risked losing his children.

Hannah quickly became an evasive witness on cross-examination. Twenty-seven times, she said she couldn't recall when asked various questions. "You seem to be deliberately evading the questions, Ms. Hannah," Judge Clifford Weckstein said at one point.

Also, there was testimony of bad blood between Hannah's husband and Reedy, prompting Grimes to speculate in closing arguments that she had fabricated her testimony.

-What he said after the fire: The first person to speak to Reedy after he escaped from the burning house was his neighbor.

Umberto Lombardo testified that he ran next door after seeing the fire and found Reedy sitting on the front steps, badly burned and clearly in pain. Lombardo said that when he asked Reedy where his children were, he replied: "The kids are gone." Asked where, Reedy said they were with his girlfriend in Vinton, who had left during an argument the night before, Lombardo testified.

Minutes later, after Reedy was taken to Lombardo's back porch, he said the children were still inside.

Prosecutors argued that if Reedy was really trying to save his children from a burning house, wouldn't he have told the first person he saw that they were trapped inside?

Reedy says he has no clear memory of talking to Lombardo. But he was likely in shock at the time and not thinking clearly, according to Dr. Mukesh Patel, a Salem psychiatrist who treated Reedy after the fire.

Patel said it's not unusual for someone who has just experienced emotional trauma and life-threatening injuries to be thinking - and speaking - incoherently.

Also, Reedy had inhaled carbon monoxide from the fire. The gas can cause disorientation and short-term confusion, according to medical experts.

That was never explained to the jury, nor was Patel called as a witness. Had he been called, prosecutors would likely have objected, arguing that expert testimony about a defendant's state of mind can only be used in insanity cases.

-Gas on Reedy's shirt: A laboratory test found a trace of gasoline on either the T-shirt or the undershorts that Reedy was wearing at the time of the fire. (Both pieces of clothing were put in the same container and tested at the same time, so it was never known which item had gasoline on it. During the course of the trial, most references were made to the shirt.)

Reedy testified that he could have gotten the gas on the shirt when he handled a lawn mower the night before the fire. A friend, Gerald Williams, told the jury that on Aug. 9, the day before the fire, Reedy let him borrow the mower, but said he had no gasoline for it. Williams testified that he got his own gas, and that some was still left in the mower when he returned it that night.

Reedy testified that he carried the lawn mower into his house, where he routinely kept it so it wouldn't be stolen. Because the back door would open only halfway before it hit a counter inside the house, Reedy said he had to pick the mower up and hold it against his torso - allowing the possibility for a small amount of gas to spill on his shirt.

However, Reedy's girlfriend at the time, Kim Bradford, told the jury that he pushed the lawn mower inside.

William "Duke" Whiteside, a former Norfolk detective who looked into the case and became convinced of Reedy's innocence, inspected the door in 1995. Whiteside said it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to push a lawn mower through the door.

And if gas splashed on Reedy's shirt as he was pouring it to set a fire, Whiteside wondered, wouldn't it also get on his pants? Authorities tested the blue jeans that Reedy had on that day, but found no trace of gas.

-The nature of Reedy's burns. Reedy suffered extensive burns on the backs of his hands and lower forearms, and less serious burns on his palms. He also had superficial burns to his face.

Dr. Richard Surrusco, who treated Reedy in the Roanoke Memorial Hospital emergency room, testified that if Reedy was burned only by super-heated air, the burns would likely be more evenly distributed over his body.

Ferris, the prosecutor, used that testimony to argue that Reedy's injuries were consistent with flash burns that someone might suffer while standing over a pool of gasoline and lighting a match.

But an arson expert who reviewed Surrusco's testimony for The Roanoke Times said determining whether burns are caused by heat, as opposed to direct exposure to flames, is an inexact science at best.

"There are so many factors that influence that, I think it would be somewhat speculative to say unequivocally that was how the burns occurred," said Patrick McGinley of Lafayette Hill, Pa.

McGinley, a former Philadelphia fire marshal who now testifies as an arson expert in cases across the country, offered an alternative theory for Reedy's uneven burns. McGinley said Reedy could have put his hands over his face to protect himself, thus explaining why the outer parts of his hands and arms were burned the most, and his face and palms the least.

-Reedy's testimony. Reedy denied setting the fire, but his testimony came under intense attack. Ferris hammered at Reedy's memory lapses. He grilled Reedy on why he had not initially told police about handling the lawn mower. And he demanded to know why Reedy lied the night of the fire when he told several people his ex-wife had been lurking around the house.

Following one withering exchange, Reedy pleaded with his attorney to ask for a recess.

In interviews after the trial with a private investigator who worked for Reedy's lawyer, two jurors said Reedy's testimony was the trial's turning point. It seemed that Reedy was lying when he said he could not answer some of Ferris's questions, the jurors told the investigator.

But Patel, the psychiatrist who was treating Reedy at the time, said it was not unusual for someone seriously injured in a fire to be unable to recall details.

Patel said he had "real serious concerns" about Reedy's ability to be an effective witness, based on his memory loss and emotional problems at the time. However, Patel added that he could not say in his professional opinion that Reedy was incompetent to stand trial.

The psychiatrist also said that in sessions after the fire, Reedy seemed "appropriately depressed" over the deaths of his children. "It is very difficult to conclude that he was fitting with the profile of someone who had killed his two children," Patel said.

-Reedy's behavior before the fire: The night before the fire, Reedy got into a spat with his girlfriend, Kim Bradford. He did some stupid things - things that Branscom, the other prosecutor, says were "dangerously irrational."

During the argument, Reedy threatened to kill Bradford and punched his fist through the window of his back door, she told the jury. Later, as Bradford was waiting for a taxi back to her Vinton apartment, he hurled a rock through the window of a junked pickup truck in his driveway.

That night, Reedy would say his ex-wife caused the damage, which he later admitted was a lie.

After Bradford left, Reedy rode his 10-speed bike down an alley to the home of Williams, the friend who earlier had borrowed the lawn mower. With blood still dripping from the hand he had smashed through the window, Reedy asked for a gun. Reedy said he was concerned that his ex-wife was lurking around the house, Williams testified.

After returning home - armed only with two bottles of wine that Williams gave him instead of a gun - Reedy did something he regrets to this day. He left his children alone in the house while he took a taxi to Vinton to patch things up with Bradford.

The way prosecutor Caldwell sees it, Reedy's behavior that night "shows that he was bent on doing harm to himself and perhaps to others around him."

But is that proof he set the fire?

"I know there are a lot of things that make me look bad or guilty; I'm not naive," Reedy said in an interview with the newspaper. "But with God as my witness, I did not set that fire."

Reedy, who has never taken a polygraph test about the fire, said he is willing to take one now. The Department of Corrections denied the newspaper's request to have him tested at the Brunswick Correctional Center in Southside Virginia, where he is being held. Larry Traylor, spokesman for the department, said inmates can be polygraphed only at the request of the Parole Board, courts or law enforcement officials.

If he did it, why?

Not only is there a plausible explanation for every piece of evidence against Reedy, Grimes said, there is no logical explanation for why he would set the fire.

Witnesses testified at the trial that he was a loving father who kept a spotless house. Reedy said in divorce filings that his wife left the children with him in 1985. Court records show that Reedy obtained sole custody of Michael Edward in August 1986 and Tina Marie in May 1987, less than three months before the fire.

After winning custody, Reedy quit his job as a roofer and went on welfare so he could stay home and care for the children. He had no insurance on the house, which was owned by his mother, and the only insurance on the children was a burial policy.

Prosecutors say Reedy set the fire for one of two reasons: Either it was a murder-suicide that he aborted when the fire got too hot, or he set the fire with the intention of saving his children at the last minute to look like a hero.

The murder-suicide motive - based on Paula Hannah's testimony that Reedy was afraid of losing his children - seemed a stretch. Even prosecutor Ferris told the jury: "There wasn't any evidence that [Reedy's ex-wife] or the welfare [department] were going to get the kids."

Still, prosecutors painted a far different picture of Reedy than the defense presented.

Time after time, they emphasized how he left his children alone the night of the fire. And they called a police officer as a rebuttal witness to testify how Reedy once locked his wife and children out of the house on a winter night.

Although there were allegations of bad parenting against both mother and father, it was uncontested that Reedy was the primary caregiver.

"They lit up my life," Reedy said of Tina Marie and Michael Edward. "It was worth getting up every morning for them."

That Reedy deliberately killed his children apparently was too much for the jurors to say. They chose not to convict him of capital murder, which would have required proof of a premeditated murder-suicide plan.

By returning first-degree murder convictions, the jury apparently accepted motive No.2: That Reedy set the fire meaning to save the children and look like a hero, but was overcome by the flames before he could complete the plan.

Maybe Reedy was trying to win Bradford's affections back, prosecutors said. Maybe he was embarrassed by his behavior during their argument, Ferris told the jury, and decided to be a "super stud" by saving the children.

But Bradford testified that she and Reedy made up after he took a cab to her apartment that morning, about two hours before the fire, and that she had agreed to return to his house the following day.

And if Reedy was trying to play the hero, Grimes said, it would make no sense for him to block his only escape from the house by setting the fire at the back door. (Testimony showed that the house's front door was bolted shut to keep the children away from the steep front porch steps.)

Investigators found signs of gas on the porch floor just outside the back door and on the kitchen floor just inside the house.

So if Reedy did not trap himself in a burning house, who did?

"It is reasonable to conclude that someone waited outside Reedy's home during the early morning hours of Aug. 10, 1987," Grimes wrote in an unsuccessful appeal of Reedy's conviction.

That someone could have seen Reedy get out of the taxi and go into the house alone, thus assuming the children were elsewhere. That someone, Grimes further theorized, then could have approached the house from behind, poured gas on the porch and through the back door window - which Reedy had broken just hours earlier - and set the fire while Reedy slept inside.

That someone, Reedy claimed in his own petition to the Court of Appeals, could have been his ex-wife or someone acting with her.

'I'll get you'

On Aug. 8, 1987, Ruby Entsminger was baby-sitting at the Reedy home.

In a statement that Reedy has included in a motion filed in Roanoke Circuit Court, Entsminger gave the following account of what happened that day:

She was upstairs with Tina Marie and Michael Edward when Reedy's ex-wife stopped by. She and Reedy quickly got into a heated argument about the custody of their children.

Entsminger said she heard the woman tell Reedy that if she couldn't have the kids, "I'll see that you won't either." As the ex-wife left, Entsminger recalls, she told Reedy: "Just wait and see, I'll get you."

Two days later, the house was in flames.

Entsminger was at the funeral home two days after the childrens' deaths when she saw Reedy's ex-wife again. Entsminger said she walked outside in time to hear the woman tell the people she was with that the fire was meant for Reedy.

"I overheard [the ex-wife] say ... for two cents she should go in there and turn over the coffins and show them it was meant for Davey," Entsminger said in a written statement filed in court.

Entsminger, who now lives in South Carolina, said the same thing in an interview with the newspaper. She passed a lie detector test conducted last October for The Roanoke Times.

The test was administered by Robert Riddle, a state-licensed polygraph examiner since 1974, first as an officer with the Myrtle Beach Police Department and now as the owner of Polygraph Service Inc.

Because polygraphs are not always reliable, the results are inadmissible in court. But they are routinely used by police as an investigative tool.

It was only after Entsminger had passed the polygraph that she contacted Reedy, who did not know where she was living at the time, and mailed him the written statement that he later filed in court.

Entsminger was subpoenaed as a defense witness for Reedy's trial, but was never called to testify. Although hearsay testimony is not usually allowed, the law includes an exception for "declarations against interest" that would apply to what Entsminger heard the ex-wife say, according to Brown, the law professor who reviewed the transcript.

Grimes said recently he cannot recall why he did not call Entsminger as a witness.

Grimes did call Johnny Thornhill, who lived behind Reedy's house. Thornhill testified that on the morning of the fire, he saw a plastic milk jug that had been discarded at the edge of Reedy's backyard. Thornhill told the jury that several fire investigators were handling the jug, and they said it smelled of gas.

Authorities say today that they have no record of such a discovery.

Another neighbor, who was not called as a witness and asked that she not be identified, said that on the morning of Aug. 10, she saw a man and a woman leaving the scene of the fire, not far from where the milk jug was reportedly found.

That witness said the man and woman got into a small red car and drove away as the first fire engines arrived.

About a week before the fire, Reedy claims in one of his petitions, his ex-wife tried to run him over in his driveway during an argument about the children.

At the time, he said, she was driving a red Gremlin.

Police confirm that on Aug., 2, 1987, Reedy called 911 to make a complaint that included a description of the car. The officer wrote a report of the incident and told Reedy that he could swear out charges before a magistrate if he wished, according to Sgt. Smith of the Roanoke Police Department.

In a statement to police, Reedy's ex-wife later said she was driving the red car at the time, Smith said. She told police that Reedy was the instigator that night, and that she drove off when he hit the car with a stick.

New evidence, or nothing new?

Tammy Andrews was locked up in the Roanoke City Jail during the fall of 1989 when she met an inmate who knew the Reedy family.

As Andrews - who says she has never met Reedy - learned more about his conviction the previous year, she remembered a conversation she once had with Reedy's ex-wife.

After calling Reedy's mother collect from a jail pay phone, Andrews later gave the family a taped statement, which was filed with Reedy's petition in Circuit Court.

In the statement, Andrews said the ex-wife made incriminating statements about the fire to several people during a night of drinking at a Tazewell Avenue house in the summer of 1988. Andrews said the ex-wife talked about how the fire was set with gasoline, then recalled how "she told Davey Reedy that she'd get him out of her life one way or another."

Andrews said the same thing in an interview this year with the newspaper, but declined to take a polygraph test.

Her story was supported in 1989 by her ex-husband, Mike Harris, who said he was at the party and also heard the ex-wife's statements.

In a taped interview with Reedy's family and in a signed and notarized statement, both of which were filed later in court, Harris said he heard the woman say: "My ex-husband is pulling time for something that I did."

Harris refused to be interviewed for this story.

Reedy's mother, Geraldine Wheeler, said she took the statements from Andrews and Harris to Alvin Dudley, the Roanoke detective who investigated the fatal fire.

Sgt. Smith said the information was turned over to the Commonwealth's Attorney's office. Branscom, the assistant prosecutor, was not impressed with what Andrews and Harris said then, or what Entsminger said later.

"Someone may say that [the ex-wife] said something that they interpreted to be incriminating," Branscom said. "But it doesn't replace the fact there were a bunch of people with her that morning" in her brother's apartment.

Branscom also wondered why the people who say they heard the statements did not go to police at the time.

Also, the statements by Harris and Andrews are slightly different - Andrews says she never heard an outright confession - and they are contradicted by two other people who were said to be present that night.

Those people, the ex-wife's boyfriend at the time and a mutual friend, say they never heard the ex-wife say the things that Harris and Andrews attribute to her.

The case of "he said, she said" is further complicated: Andrews has a criminal record, and she wrote in a letter to the Reedy family that she once had a relationship with the ex-wife's boyfriend.

Yet there are other things that seem to support what Andrews, Harris and Entsminger say:

-None of the three seems particularly close to Reedy, nor do they appear to be acting at his behest. Andrews declined initially to be interviewed; Harris refused to comment at all about his 1989 statement; and Entsminger had not spoken to the Reedy family for years when she was located in South Carolina by the newspaper.

-Records confirm that Andrews was incarcerated in 1989 with the woman she says told her about Reedy's case. And there are no major inconsistencies between what she told Reedy's family in 1989 and what she told the newspaper this year.

-Court documents quote Andrews and Entsminger as saying they heard the ex-wife either threaten Reedy before the fire or say afterward that she had done so. About a month after Reedy was convicted, someone sent him a letter in jail. It had no return address, and the letters had been cut from newspaper headlines and pasted on the page.

"I got even with you," the anonymous letter stated. "I told you I would."

The letter, a copy of which was introduced as evidence in an unsuccessful motion to set the jury's verdict aside, was tested for fingerprints. None were found.

Authorities were skeptical of the letter and similar ones that were sent to Reedy's mother, prosecutors, detectives and others. They said it was probably the work of someone sympathetic to Reedy.

An alibi untested in court

Although Reedy's ex-wife declined to comment for this story, others support the alibi she gave police.

Her brother and his girlfriend at the time told police they were with the ex-wife the night of Aug. 9 and the morning of Aug. 10 at the brother's apartment, and that they did not see her leave. Also present was the ex-wife's boyfriend, another adult and three children, they said.

The girlfriend told police they all got up around 6 a.m., and were in a rush to get to work. Firefighters were called to Reedy's house at 6:21, according to testimony.

In a telephone interview from his West Coast home, the brother said he, his girlfriend, and the ex-wife's boyfriend passed polygraph tests that backed up their story. Police said the ex-wife was the only one given a polygraph.

And according to Sgt. Smith's review of the case file, there is no record that police ever took a formal statement from the ex-wife's boyfriend - the person who was the closest to her in the hours before and after the fire. Smith said the detective could have spoken to the boyfriend and not mentioned it in any of his reports.

Reedy's mother said Dudley, the detective who investigated the fire, told her that he never spoke to the boyfriend. Dudley, who is now retired, declined to comment for this story.

In an interview last year with the newspaper, the ex-wife's boyfriend supported the alibi. He said they spent most of the night of Aug. 9 drinking and partying at her brother's apartment, and that they slept on the living room floor before getting up around 6.

The ex-wife told police that she rode with her boyfriend to his construction job site, then went to a 7 a.m. job interview she had at a Southeast Roanoke factory, Smith said.

Yet no such interview was scheduled, according to the factory's assistant manager at the time. Eula Johnston said she remembers a woman coming into the office that morning for what she thought was a job interview. She left after being told she had no appointment, Johnston said.

Smith said one reason the ex-wife was eliminated as a supect was because she passed a polygraph - or at least that's what police thought at the time. But recently, in response to questions for this story, police re-examined the test results and found them to be inconclusive.

Several months before Reedy's trial, the ex-wife told a private investigator that she expected to be "grilled" on the witness stand.

She was never called to testify, nor were the people who supported her alibi. Prosecutors said they were ready to present alibi witnesses, but felt it was not necessary after the defense did not offer testimony suggesting the ex-wife set the fire.

During the trial, Ferris noted that Reedy and his ex-wife seemed to be on good terms. "Would you be walking arm and arm with the woman who burned down that house that burned up your two kids today?" the prosecutor asked Reedy on cross-examination.

Reedy says now that he had misgivings at the time, but "I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, something they didn't give me."

Three fatal fires

In 1980, a motorist on a Botetourt County country road noticed a trailer on fire and called for help. When firefighters arrived, they found one victim inside - an 18-year-old who was the ex-wife's boyfriend and the father of her first child.

"There is no indication of foul play," then-Sheriff Norman Sprinkle told The Fincastle Herald at the time. Authorities said it appeared that the 18-year-old, who was alone in the trailer when the fire started about 7 a.m., had fallen asleep while smoking.

The 18-year-old's friends said at the time that he had no cigarettes when they dropped him off at the trailer hours before the fire - and in fact had been bumming cigarettes from others all night, according to an investigation by Deputy Reed Kelly, who is now Botetourt County Sheriff.

The 18-year-old's mother said there were no cigarettes in the trailer when she left that weekend, Kelly wrote in an investigative report.

However, the report also noted that the 18-year-old "had been known on several occasions to take cigarette butts out of the ashtrays and smoke them." Several cigarette butts were found in the living room, where the body was found.

The fire was believed to have started in the bedroom.

Kelly said he could not recall if any of the fire debris was tested for signs of arson. If it was, he said, state police would have handled that part of the investigation. State police said they have no record of that.

Seven years later, Grimes inquired about the fire while preparing for Reedy's trial.

"It is at the very least curious that two of [the ex-wife's] children died and her husband, Davey Reedy, nearly died seven years almost to the day after the father of her first child died in a trailer fire in Botetourt County," Grimes wrote in a letter requesting records from the investigation.

Court records subpoenaed by Grimes show that in the months before the fire, the 18-year-old and Reedy's ex-wife were having problems. Their newborn son was placed in shelter care after the ex-wife was accused of neglecting him, according to records filed in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

The ex-wife later regained custody of the boy. The father was granted weekly visits and told to pay child support "until further order of the court" - a directive that became moot just two weeks later, when he died in the trailer fire.

That fire was never mentioned during Reedy's trial.

Seven years after the trial, fire struck again.

On July 18, 1995, the ex-wife's mother died in a house fire in Southeast Roanoke. An investigation by the Roanoke Fire Department found that the woman died of smoke inhalation after an extension cord plugged into an air conditioner overheated and started the fire.

A decade of denial

Davey Reedy has not served his time quietly.

He has filed dozens of lawsuits, sent letters to everyone from the president of the United States to the pope, and argued his case more persistently than perhaps any other Roanoke murder convict.

Some people are tired of listening.

The deputy clerks in the Roanoke Circuit Court clerk's office just roll their eyes when they get another one of Reedy's pleadings, which are handwritten on yellow legal paper and bear the dubious stamp of "inmate mail."

Reedy has sued judges, jurors, police officers, fire investigators and many others connected with his case.

He has filed defamation claims against prosecutors for simply arguing the charges against him. He once sued The Roanoke Times for libel, then sued its lawyer for responding in legal papers to the claim.

In a 1992 order dismissing some of the lawsuits, Judge Robert O'Hara wrote that Reedy's "conduct is an ill-advised litigious vendetta" and that he "is not seeking civil redress but a forum to proclaim his innocence."

Reedy vows never to shut up.

"I'll fight it till I drop dead," he said. "The only way that they're going to keep me from writing is to cut off my hands."

Inmates often say things like that. But not for as long and as loud as Reedy has, according to a Department of Corrections psychologist.

"Sooner or later with most people in prison, there comes a time of acceptance, which [Reedy] has never demonstrated to my knowledge," said Robert Picarella, who worked with Reedy before retiring last year after more than 20 years as a clinical psychologist.

Picarella said that in his professional opinion, Reedy does not fit the psychological profile of someone who would kill his children, and shows no signs of delusional thinking.

"Mentally, the man is stable," he said.

Even Ferris, one of the prosecutors who put Reedy behind bars, admits that his persistence over the years is vexing.

"There's a little voice inside me that says, 'Gee whiz, if somebody protests for that long, maybe there's something to it,'" Ferris said. However, Ferris added that he is not aware of any new evidence to make him think Reedy could be innocent.

As for the information implicating Reedy's ex-wife, Ferris said: "We are looking back 11 years with 20-20 hindsight, and we're looking at evidence that's been developed since the trial. Does what you're telling me make me think we made a mistake? No. Might it develop that a mistake was made? Anything is possible."

William "Duke" Whiteside already is convinced a mistake was made.

In 1995, Whiteside was working as a reporter for the Port Cities Concerns, a small alternative newspaper in Portsmouth, when he got a letter from Reedy. Whiteside, a former detective for the Norfolk Police Department, checked out the case and became convinced of Reedy's innocence.

"When you look at the picture in total, it just doesn't ring true that this guy did it," Whiteside said. Whiteside wrote a series of first-person articles, which included his personal opinions, that were published in 1995.

Reedy included the articles in a petition for clemency filed the same year. In the process, he gained another supporter.

Paul Hedges, a lawyer who worked for George Allen and served on the former governor's Commission to Abolish Parole, was assigned to review the clemency request.

"Reedy raised some significant questions that required a real close look at the evidence," said Hedges, who is now in private practice in Chesapeake. Hedges was not able to follow up on many of his questions because he left the Allen administration in May 1997.

In January 1998, in one of his last acts as governor, Allen denied the petition after an unsually long, two-year review. "This one was studied more extensively" than other clemency requests, then-Secretary of the Commonwealth Betsy Davis Beamer said.

And it should be studied some more, Hedges says.

"I hope that there's someone who can pick this matter up and give it the time and attention that it deserves," he said. "Because the many issues that have been raised have never been resolved."

'Two little angels'

On a January afternoon earlier this year, Geraldine Wheeler drove her silver Buick with its "2 Angels" license plates to Sherwood Park in Salem.

A crust of frozen snow and ice still covered the shady spot at the bottom of the hill where Wheeler's grandchildren are buried. Two minature Christmas trees and a pair of makeshift white crosses marked the spot.

Wheeler took a broom handle and began to chip away at the ice that covered the markers.

Tina Marie's epitaph was the first to emerge:

"Little Angel. Tina Marie Reedy. July 21, 1983 - Aug. 10, 1987. Our little girl."

The family had affectionately called her "Grumpy," after the dwarf in Snow White, because of her often-sad expression. She liked to play with her Barbie dolls and take care of her younger brother. Green beans were her favorite food.

Wheeler swept aside more snow, uncovering the second marker.

"Little Angel. Michael Edward Reedy. Sept. 27, 1984 - Aug. 10, 1987. Our little boy."

The more rambunctious of the two, Michael Edward loved to dance with his father, who would place the child's feet on his own as he moved to the music. Michael Edward refused to go to bed without one of his favorite cars, which he called "buddin-buddins."

To this day, Wheeler carries in her purse a keepsake of her grandchildren - a piece of paper they scribbled on while waiting with her in a courthouse parking lot as Reedy sought custody inside.

The loss of her two grandchildren is compounded by what happened to Wheeler's youngest son.

"I could have given up Davey easier with the kids in the fire than I could with what the system has done to him," she said. " At least I would know that Davey would be at peace, instead of where he's at now."

Wheeler's voice faltered, and her eyes clouded with tears. She paused for just a second, then regained the determination that is shared by her son.

"He will never give up," Wheeler said. "Him or I either one. For as long as we live, we'll never give up."

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