1. Apartment #716
It was a joke among members of the ragtag maintenance crew at the Section 8 housing project, as well as a convenient answer for local fire marshals who sometimes inquired: “Blacks frying chicken with grease, they keep burning down these apartments!”
The London Square Apartment complex where the crew worked was an aging misfit in the midst of a well-established middle-class neighborhood in Tulsa, in central Oklahoma. When it was built in 1965, the sprawling complex was considered a jewel in the midtown community, boasting seven private in-ground swimming pools and immaculate landscaping. Fifty years later, neighbors see it as a tinderbox — its aging wooden roofs, dilapidated stairs, and boarded windows a testament to neglect. Numerous fires through the years served to evacuate unlucky tenants, along with the colonies of bedbugs hiding in mattresses of previously burned-out units.
One of those occurred on November 18, 2013.
For Miashah Moses, it began with a plume of black smoke. She saw it rising from her building as she crossed the parking lot. She broke into a run. Her two small nieces were inside.
Miashah had left Unit #716 only minutes earlier to empty the trash. She raced up the staircase to her front door on the second floor, still unsure if the smoke was coming from her unit. She was shaking so badly she kept dropping her keys. Frantic, she ran next door to #718 and pounded on Tina Long’s window, screaming, “Fire! Call 911!” Tina dialed 911 and bolted out her door to Miashah’s apartment. Neither could budge the door. Noni, four, and Nylah, eighteen months, were locked inside. They were the children of her older sister, Keahmiee.
Two men appeared out of nowhere and tried futilely to bust the door. Finally, on Tina’s count, they rammed it off its hinges. A wall of thick black smoke rolled out. The men lunged in, only to be driven back, coughing. They couldn’t see two inches in front of their faces. Repeated attempts were futile.
Tina wasn’t giving up. “I had on a really thin T-shirt, and I bunched it up as best I could over my face and I made it to the hallway. I couldn’t breathe anymore. And I started thinking of my kids and I thought, ‘I can’t die here, I’ve got kids.’” She retreated.
Visibility was near zero and the heat level was rapidly increasing to the level required for spontaneous ignition. Miashah knew where the children were and was determined to save them or die trying. She nearly did. After several attempts to grope her way along the hallway to the bedrooms, she collapsed outside from smoke inhalation.
By this time, temperatures in the ultra-dense smoke had reached flashover. Fifteen-foot flames began leaping out the kitchen window. “She would have gone in again had one of the guys not physically restrained her,” Tina said, “and she would have been dead along with the children.”
Tina was kneeling over Miashah in the courtyard below when she caught a glimpse of the apartment maintenance man running up the stairs, down the walkway, and throwing something into the burning unit. “I can’t be sure, but it was round and white and looked just like the smoke detector in my unit,” she said. “I mean, what else would he be throwing in there?” She says she never heard any smoke detectors going off during the episode. “All I could hear was Miashah screaming, ‘My babies, my babies, get the babies!’”
Fire trucks arrived within minutes. Several hydrants located inside the complex had become non-functional several years ago, so the firefighters struggled to drag the hose from the hydrant across the street, some three hundred feet around the far end of the building, up the back stairs, and across the walkway to #716. “I felt like it was taking forever,” Tina said. “It was probably ten or fifteen minutes just to get the hose up.”
By this time, smoke was belching from the balcony of #716 across the entire complex, the length of a football field. Fire Captain Zachary Willis was parked at the side of the complex in a city SUV talking to firefighters. “At this point I was still unaware of possible victims inside the apartment,” Willis’s report states. “I had [Engine 14] at the window of the car when a friend of the mother approached us stating there were kids inside the apartment.” He noted in his report that another fire unit had become aware of the children earlier and tried to radio out, but the call had been “stepped on” by another radio call.
Although the children were just inside the window, Fire Captain Stan May said firefighters didn’t know that and came in from the other side. “There was no direct access back to the bedroom — that slowed them down,” he said.
After Miashah’s frantic call, Courtney Fletcher, her stepfather, rushed to the scene. He found her curled up on the sidewalk in the midst of firefighters, hoses, tenants, and onlookers, her screams lost in the chaos.
Tina watched helplessly as firefighters emerged, carrying two small, limp bodies to a waiting ambulance. Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA), Tulsa’s ambulance contractors, rushed the girls to Saint Francis Hospital’s emergency room. Members of the Moses family were crowded in the hospital emergency waiting room, praying that the girls would pull through, when a uniformed stranger approached and asked the names of the children “for the coroner.”
They stared in disbelief.
2. A Charge of Murder
One week later, Miashah, then twenty-three, was charged with second-degree murder in the deaths of Noni and Nylah.
Her pro-bono attorney was Sharon Holmes, a former assistant district attorney who was well known by the judges and other attorneys in the Tulsa court system. A trim African American woman with a military background, she often represented high-profile clients. In addition, she routinely assisted underprivileged clients on a pro bono basis.
Holmes said privately that she felt the District Attorney’s stance in the case was harsh and unwarranted. She mentioned this to Dennis Wharton, a bail bondsman for eighteen years in the Tulsa court system and a licensed California attorney. He agreed and said, “I don’t think the facts support the charges.” The Moses family was struggling to meet Miashah’s out-of-pocket court costs, and he gave Holmes $500 to help with legal expenses. To him, the cause seemed a worthy one.
Local news outlets adopted a different view than that of Holmes and Wharton. Based on skeleton facts from police and fire reports — including the fact that Miashah had talked briefly with a neighbor after dropping off the trash, with the girls inside — television stations displayed graphic footage of the London Square inferno and vilified her. The reports noted Miashah’s past arrest record — including assault, a second-degree burglary guilty plea, and one for possession of marijuana.
A local CBS news anchor reported Miashah had left the children “trapped” in the apartment. A FOX23 news channel reporter left television audiences with this: “Two children died that day. Somebody has to be held accountable. Who?”
3. Tulsa County Courthouse, Room 423
On June 23, 2014, seven months after the fire, Tulsa County District Court Judge James Caputo was to hold a hearing on the Moses case in his courtroom at 9 a.m. The charges against Miashah had been brought by the Tulsa District Attorney, Tim Harris, and if proven, could result in a lifetime behind bars for her. The case was delayed, and Caputo called a recess. A large group gathered outside the courtroom, including a tall striking black woman with tight braids laced close to her head.
She was Chrisandria Moses, Keahmiee and Miashah’s mother. Through years of struggle, including experience with domestic violence, she had worked her way from menial jobs to positions commanding a degree of respect — a trained security guard, a Certified Nursing Assistant, and, until recently, a Tulsa public school bus driver. She was passionate and well spoken, a woman who seemed able to differentiate common sense from nonsense — which is what she believed the justice system had perpetrated on her daughter. She quit her job as a bus driver after the death of Noni and Nylah. The exuberant schoolchildren were a reminder of the little ones she had lost.
The rest of the crowd gathered outside the courtroom. Some carried posters with photos of the two small victims. More than a dozen members of the crowd were family members: aunts, uncles, cousins, as well as Miashah and Keahmiee’s brothers and sisters. In age they ranged from Nubia, thirteen, who is Keahmiee and Miashah’s little sister and an honor student at Carver Middle School, to Doreen, the dead children’s great grandmother, in her late sixties.
Front and center was the children’s mother, Keahmiee, nineteen, there to defend her sister’s innocence even through the pain of her own loss. “Nobody asked me,” she said. “I’m their mother, and I’m telling you my sister is not a murderer. My sister loved my kids.”
The outpouring was an odd combination of rejoicing, remembrance, and fierce defense of a family member who, they believed, was nothing more than another victim of a tragic accident. Chrisandria sat beside Courtney Fletcher, her soft-spoken partner of seventeen years. Their emotions were written on their faces — sorrow, shock, and a determination to face down a district attorney armed with virtually unlimited resources and power.
4. A Protective Mother
Chrisandria, a mother at thirteen, had been seven months pregnant with Miashah, her second child, when her husband attacked her with a screwdriver.
It was 1990 in their North Tulsa apartment. As Chrisandria tells the story, their son, Keontae, then two years old, had been playing nearby on the floor of the apartment. As an argument between Chrisandria and her husband grew heated, he turned and unleashed a torrent of anger on the two-year old, landing a blow across the child’s back that sent blood gushing out of his nose. Chrisandria stepped between them to block his fury. He flung her against the closet door.
Clambering for the first thing she could grasp to defend herself, she tore a clothes rod from the closet behind her and swung it at him. He jerked it out of her hands and threw it across the room. It wasn’t until he was nearly on top of her that she saw the eight-inch screwdriver over her head, lashing at her wildly — first across her chest, then across her back as she turned to protect her unborn child. Chunks of flesh were punctured out like divots.
The fight continued into the front yard and out into the street. One last punch blacked her out on the ground. When she came to, Chrisandria remembers, she was drenched in blood. A neighbor was standing over her with a shotgun pointed at her husband. “If you hit her again,” he said, “I’ll blow your head off.”
This was the first battle she would fight to protect her children, and it wouldn’t be the last.
5. Life in London Square
Miashah and her younger sister Keahmiee moved to London Square only two months before the fire. Keahmiee worked as a housekeeper at Hillcrest Hospital while Miashah cared for Noni and Nylah, who by all accounts were crazy about their “Auntie Mo.” She had been babysitting Noni and Nylah since the day they were born.
The two-bedroom apartment was cramped, but the sisters were close and glad to finally be on their own. It wasn’t the Hilton, but the aging housing complex was affordable and located in a decent part of town. Keahmiee, now twenty two, is petite, with shoulder-length smooth hair and a winsome face. Miashah, now twenty five, is the opposite, a five-foot two-inch tall, stocky, soft-spoken girl with a boyish appearance. Between Miashah’s six siblings and extended family, there was always a baby in the house, and she was the one who cared for them, juggling homework and diaper changes, then jumping out of bed early the next morning to make the opening bell at McKinley Elementary School. She was cooking meatloaf at the age of seven. She babysat family children all through high school.
Photos of her at her high school graduation show a bright-looking girl with an easy laugh. All she wanted to do was get a job and live her life. Always a tomboy, she loved shooting baskets in the driveway with her younger brother. Family gatherings at the Moses house were jubilant, her mother said, with smiling Miashah at the center of them. She was outgoing and talkative, a light at the center of things.
When Keahmiee leased the London Square apartment, it seemed only natural that Miashah would move in with her and take care of the kids. “That’s all I knew, was those kids,” Miashah said. “I had been taking care of them my whole life.”
The situation also worked well for another reason: Miashah had been booted out of her house after she told her mother that she was gay. It wasn’t something Chrisandria felt she could deal with at the time, she said. The November 2013 deaths of Noni and Nylah would change that. Having her first-born daughter accused of murdering her own grandchildren would force Chrisandria, as well as other family members, to see the comparative irrelevance of Miashah’s sexuality. But meanwhile, the two sister’s arrangement in the Section 8 housing worked well for everyone.
Several things about apartment #716 were quirky, though. One item of particular concern was the wood railing along the second-floor walkway just outside their door, which was missing several slats. Noni was prone to let her little sister “out for a walk,” and there was ample room for a toddler to squeeze through and plummet to the sidewalk. As a precaution, Miashah and Keahmiee kept the front door securely locked.
Also: The dials on the stove didn’t line up with the heat levels, and you could never be certain if a burner was on or off. Their stove was electric, and the sisters learned that the only way to turn a burner off was to twist the knob to the right until it stopped, something a neighbor, Tina, was keenly aware of since her stove dials had no heat level markers at all. “They had all worn off,” she said. “There’s supposed to be a light that turns on when the burner’s on,” said Tina, “but there’s been times when the light’s not on, but I know the burner is on because I feel the heat coming off.”
Also: The apartment did not have a smoke detector, and the fire extinguisher outside on the walkway had an expired inspection sticker. Exposed wiring could be seen sprawled along the upstairs walkway and dangling from exterior walls. Tina worried that the wiring in the aging complex was antiquated and overloaded. In her case, the lights in her ceiling fan flickered and wouldn’t work at the same time as the fan. Finally, the entire fixture blew. The light in the bathroom short-circuited one day and threw the breaker, and when she plugged in a nearby oscillating fan, it sparked and blew the circuits in all three bedrooms. According to Tina, if tenants complained too much about problems, they were threatened with eviction.
Jon Hodges and his friend, Andrea, lived in the apartment below Miashah, and experienced electrical problems of their own. “We had to have our entire apartment rewired because we had several electrical fires,” said Hodges. “We would be watching TV and all of a sudden the TV would go out and we would see smoke coming out of the wall. There was one time we could actually see a black line starting to burn up the side of the wall,” he said. At that point, he threw all the breakers and called the manager.
6. Fire in #716
On November 18, 2013, Keahmiee fixed herself shrimp in a skillet with grease for lunch and left the skillet on the back burner of the stove. She kissed the children goodbye and departed for her two o’clock shift.
Less than an hour later, Miashah heated pre-grilled chicken strips for the children’s lunch, a task that took less than five minutes. After feeding Noni, she changed the baby’s diaper and put the two girls in her bedroom to watch television. She then turned the burner off, as far she could tell or remember, and — carrying the dirty diaper and the rest of the trash — she went out to the dumpster, taking care to lock the door behind her.
Surveillance cameras show Miashah leaving her apartment in the far southwest corner of the building and proceeding down the outside stairs to the trash bin in a parking lot at the opposite end of the building. After emptying the trash, she stopped at a pop machine and crossed the parking lot to visit briefly with a tenant who had waved her down from a nearby building.
It was when she turned back to her apartment that she saw black smoke rising from the southwest corner of Building 700 — where moments before she had left Noni and Nylah secure and happy.
The rest was a blur.
As fire trucks, EMSA, and Tulsa Police converged on the scene, a helicopter from a local news station circled overhead, capturing the ferocious blaze and chaos. A man was seen trying to climb up the outside of the building to the porch but he fell off because the bricks were too hot.
When Courtney, Miashah’s stepfather, raced to London Square in response to her frantic call, he found her crumpled on the ground in front of the complex, hysterical and vomiting from smoke inhalation. He watched as a police officer approached and said he would need to handcuff her if she couldn’t get herself under control. Courtney wrapped his arms around her and held her tight as they watched #716 burn. There was nothing they could do.
Miashah’s mother, Chrisandria, was completing her shift as a Tulsa public school bus driver when her cell phone rang. Drivers are prohibited from using cell phones on duty, so she didn’t answer. By the sixth or seventh call, though, she got a bad feeling. With the phone in her lap she punched the speaker button. What came next would change her life: Courtney was sobbing and screaming something about the babies, Miashah, and a fire.
The conversation was overrun by an urgent call from the school radio dispatcher: TPS Route 1120, SB21. Please, come in. “They almost never used my government call sign,” she said. Her hand was shaking as she keyed the radio. An emotional dispatcher pleaded, “Chrisandria, sweetheart, please, please call the office!”
News from the dispatcher confirmed her fears. Chrisandria returned the bus to the depot, picked up Keahmiee from work, and drove straight to Saint Francis Hospital. When they entered the children’s hospital room, Noni appeared to be sleeping peacefully. “Wake up, baby,” Chrisandria whispered, patting her cheek. “Wake up.”
The children were pronounced dead at 3:45 pm.
7. The Fallout
What followed next is vivid in Chrisandria’s mind: She had been home from the hospital with the family only a few hours when an Oklahoma Department of Human Services representative knocked on her front door demanding to question Keahmiee about what had happened.
Keiahmiee hadn’t stopped crying in the hours since the fire, and now the state had dispatched somebody to interrogate her? This, plus the negative light already being cast on Miashah by newscasters at the fire and the devastation of ten grieving family members inside the house, drove Chrisandria to the edge. “You turn it around and get off of my porch!” Chrisandria screamed at the white woman, employing a word she rarely uses: “Do you really want to come inside a houseful of crazy screaming niggers?” The woman left. By this time, Keahmiee was in dire emotional straights and Chrisandria drove her to Tulsa’s St. John’s Hospital, where she was sedated and kept overnight.
As Miashah and Chrisandria were leaving the hospital the next morning, a black SUV with tinted windows raced through the parking lot and screeched to a halt in front of them. Several police officers emerged. Miashah was arrested for outstanding court fines for some misdemeanor warrants. She was handcuffed and burst into tears.
Still shell shocked, she was taken to the Tulsa Police Department’s Detective Division, where she was read her rights and then signed a virtually blank Miranda form, with only her name scribbled at the top. There was no mention of charges for child neglect, and she waived her right to an attorney. She was interrogated by detectives and booked into the Tulsa county jail.
Chrisandria felt she was losing everybody. In the days following, she searched desperately for something of her granddaughters to cling to. “I was having such a hard time, and I couldn’t find any of Noni’s toys or anything around my house. And I said to myself, ‘God, please, let me find a shirt, or a sock, or anything.’ I went to the babies’ apartment and found Noni’s doll. They had put up a memorial outside the apartment, and there were all these teddy bears and stuff like that. I bought Noni that doll in 2010, and she named the doll “Sheah,” after Miashah.
“And when I went there that night, this doll was sitting right out front,” Chrisandria said. “The only thing on her was soot on the bottom of her feet, where I could tell she had been in the apartment.” She remembers it was the day before her 39th birthday.
8. The Investigation
In the aftermath, questions of how and why the fire started were answered within twenty-four hours: fire investigators determined it started in the kitchen, likely the stovetop, probably a grease fire.
London Square’s insurance company moved swiftly to assess the scene. Within a matter of days, #716 was gutted. Somewhere along the way the oven was removed, and all physical traces of the fire or its cause were destroyed. For nearly a month, the only people allowed at the scene of the fire were city officials and London Square employees.
Whether it was a tragic accident or a criminal act depends on which version of the story you believed: The fire investigator who reported that it was an accident? The fifteen-line police report, which implied that Miashah had abandoned the children with chicken frying in grease? The DA’s conclusion, that it was murder? Or the tenants who witnessed the event and concluded it was another one of the many electrical fires that plagued the complex?
The police report states that Miashah was “cooking with grease” and referred to the neighbor who had waved her down as a “homie.” Chrisandria and Miashah’s neighbor, Tina, contradict this, saying Miashah told them she was only heating, not frying, the pre-grilled chicken strips, and used Pam Cooking Spray, as stated on the package instructions, rather than grease. Chrisandria had been in the apartment only one hour earlier and remembers seeing a can of Pam on the counter.
Tulsa fire investigators officially ruled the fire accidental, as according to fire analysis there was no indication of foul play. Tulsa’s District Attorney, Tim Harris, however, drew a different conclusion. He viewed the death of the children as more than an accident — rather, it was depraved, criminal neglect.
Then on November 26, a week after her arrest, the DA upgraded Miashah’s charges — from child neglect to two counts of second-degree murder, one for each dead child, citing “an act evincing a depraved mind” when she fixed the children lunch and left them unattended for eight minutes to empty the trash. She had abandoned the children, he alleged, to do something other than merely empty the trash. The specifics would come later.
The DA’s upgraded charges were handed down the same day that Noni and Nylah were laid to rest at Crown Hill Cemetery in two unmarked patches of earth. Money was scarce for the Moses family, and gravestones would have to wait. Miashah was not present when her nieces were lowered into the ground. She was in Pod F-18 of the county jail, clad in an orange jumpsuit.
As the DA pointed to Miashah as the culprit, a narrative began taking hold in the local press: Miashah had left two small children locked in an apartment to die a horrific death. Chrisandria was mortified. “I know Miashah. I know my daughters,” she said. “I have seven children. And I would leave Miashah at home at seven and eight years old because I couldn’t afford a babysitter. She would cook whole meals. She would never do this, never in a trillion years.
“We’re the ones who lost the babies,” she said, “and they treat us like criminals.”
9. In the Courtroom
After fading from the headlines for several months, the case erupted in the media again after a March 13, 2014, preliminary hearing, when Assistant District Attorney Sarah McAmis purported to have evidence that Miashah had left to do more than just empty the trash — that she had gone to another apartment building to buy drugs.
McAmis’s star witness was Torrance Williams, the tenant in Building 400 who allegedly waved Miashah down. But his testimony was less than star quality.
According to McAmis, Williams, a husky, twenty-year-old African American, had made a statement to police officers at the fire that Miashah had come to his apartment around the time of the fire to settle a dispute with his cousin over drug money that she owed for marijuana. McAmis contended that Williams specifically told detectives that Miashah was acting, in his words, as if she were high, that she was aggressive, paranoid, her eyes big.
When Williams took the stand, McAmis led him directly to her point. His answers were not what she expected.
“You formed an opinion that she was under the influence of something, this female. Is that correct?”
“All right. And what led you to form that opinion.”
“I mean, ’cause you could tell. Just like it wasn’t hard to see that she was drunk off dope. She was drunk off (unintelligible) or (unintelligible) — I mean, like she was just slurring her words. I mean, I know that. But I don’t know nothing about buying — about anything like drugs or pills or nothing like that.”
“All right. And on that day, did you, in fact, sell her any marijuana?”
“Did she ever act aggressively towards you that day?”
“Did she act paranoid towards you that day?”
“Did you ever tell the detectives that she acted paranoid towards you that day?”
“And specifically the photograph that I showed you earlier, State’s. . . “
“. . . Exhibit 3, did you ever tell the detectives that this was, in fact, the woman in State’s Exhibit Number 3 who had come to your apartment that day?”
“See . . . that’s what I’m trying to tell you. They never showed me a picture of nobody. They showed me a picture of me walking to my house. And they said that she came to my house and I told them, yes, a female came to my house that — that had short hair with a tattoo right here. But that’s not her.” (pointing to Miashah).
“A tattoo right where?” the judge interjected.
“Right here (indicating lower right eye) …. And like I told him, ‘how can I come to court about somebody that — that they never showed me?’”
Miashah had no visible tattoos.
McAmis was visibly upset and aggressively questioned him, over the repeated objections of Holmes, who believed that McAmis was attempting to smear Miashah’s character by painting a portrait of a drug-addicted woman to support her second-degree murder charge of a “depraved mind.”
The judge then interrupted McAmis questioning of Williams:
“Counsel, my understanding is that at some point he alluded to that the female was not this female.”
“Yes, your honor. Again, the State should have the opportunity to impeach him with prior inconsistent statements…”
“Has he provided any substantive testimony that would assist the Court today? I mean, you’re impeaching your own witness…”
After a brief exchange with the judge, McAmis asked Williams a few closing questions and he was excused from the stand.
McAmis then called to the stand Tulsa Fire Marshall Mark Milstead, who led a fire investigative team that included three investigators from the Tulsa Fire Department as well as a member of the ATF, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The team followed a structured procedure for analyzing the scene to determine the cause of fire. Milstead gave a detailed technical description of the heat levels and path of the fire from its ignition source on the stove burner throughout the apartment from the ceiling to the floor. When McAmis asked if Miashah’s statement — that she had left the stove on low heat — was consistent with his own findings, Milstead was unable to give a definitive answer.
“The stove hood had extensive oxidation, which means extensive fire damage to that hood element . . .. We — we are currently going to try to do some investigation and more data to get more of a finite detail. . .. So with that information — you know, it would take, obviously, a lot longer with a low versus a higher temperature to reach that.”
He went on to add:
“In the hallway, I located a smoke detector that was battery powered that was on the floor of the hall in between the two bedrooms. . . It did have a battery located inside it with the numbers 6 of 15, assuming that’s the expiration date on the battery. But it was still intact, plugged in; however, it wasn’t operational, obviously, at that point.”
McAmis then called a Tulsa police detective, Jeanne Mackenzie, to the stand; Mackenzie testified that during her interrogation, Miashah told her she’d used day-old grease to fry chicken before she took out the trash.
“When you spoke to the Defendant, did you ask what she had been doing before the time of the fire?”
“She said that she was cooking on the stove; that she left it on “low;” that she left the apartment to throw out — to take out the trash.”
Only seconds later, Mackenzie then appeared to contradict herself, saying Miashah had said she left the stove on “6,” a heat level six levels higher than “low.”
“Did she tell you whether or not she had locked the door to the apartment?” McAmis asked.
“Yes, she said she locked the door because the oldest one would let the youngest one out.”
“Did you ask her if she had done anything else outside the apartment other than go to take out the trash?
“Yes, she said that she talked to a gentleman for two or three minutes.”
“Did you talk to her about time frames and how long she had been gone?”
“Yes, I asked her, when she went to talk to the gentleman, if maybe she was gone more than eight minutes. And her response was ‘I hope not.’”
“Did you ask the defendant whether or not she had gone to purchase marijuana from any individual?”
“Yes, I did. She said that was not true.”
“Did she tell you anything else at the fire scene?”
“She stated that she was patted down by somebody from the fire.”
Yielding to the state’s proposition, the judge ordered Miashah held without bond and bound over for arraignment in Judge James Caputo’s court. By this time, she had already spent nearly four months in jail.
Several people in the courtroom, meanwhile, remember Williams stating during the preliminary hearing that he had been pressured by the DA’s office to testify against Miashah in return for leniency on an outstanding drug charge. When Williams refused to implicate Miashah, McAmis threatened to impeach him at trial, purportedly with the testimony of Tulsa police officers who took his statement after the fire.
Five days after the preliminary hearing, when Williams appeared in court on his drug charge, his public defender abruptly resigned from the case. The judge then ordered Williams to reappear in thirty days with a private attorney. When Williams arrived on April 15 without an attorney, the judge ordered him taken into custody and he was placed in a holding chair in the courtroom to await a deputy. But somewhere between the docket call and his arrest, Williams disappeared. Subsequent subpoenas issued from the DA’s office ordering him to appear at trial were returned undelivered. Williams was later located and placed under DA supervision for payment of back court costs and fines on the drug charge and other charges.
Miashah later said she had never met Williams before the fire and didn’t know who he was.
10. Another Statistic
When Miashah was incarcerated on November 19, 2013, she joined an inordinate number of female counterparts. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Oklahoma had recorded the highest rate of female incarceration in the country, every year since 1993. By 2014, it had doubled the national average.
Ed Martinez Jr., a local Tulsa Hispanic businessman and vocal member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board, noted in an August 17, 2015 news article that his daughters and other young women frequently describe a common theme when coming in contact with law enforcement: “Their cell phones are seized, which seems like a personal violation. If they try to prevent this violation, they are threatened with obstruction of justice charges. Women stopped for suspected traffic violations are immediately asked for permission to search their car without probable cause. If they decline, they are threatened with arrest.”
Meanwhile, “Once they enter the criminal justice system, they are assessed with multiple fines and fees, most of which support the criminal justice system itself. The state of Oklahoma also enforces sentencing enhancements, mandatory minimums, and harsh drug laws that result in unnecessary felony convictions and long prison sentences for non-violent women.”
A review of Tulsa municipal and county records shows that multiple charges stemming from even a single traffic violation are often added by the arresting officer in a practice known as “stacking,” where related charges and fines are imposed for essentially the same violation. Unable to pay the steep fines and court costs, warrants are issued for “failure to pay” and more fines and court costs are added to the old. The system disproportionately affects the poor and members of minority groups, who often cannot miss work, pay for daycare, or find transportation to make payments or appear at court hearings. This system frequently feeds on itself, resulting in layers and layers of debt for the offenders, as municipalities attempt to raise revenues.
It’s worst for women who are African American. The Oklahoma Sentencing Project reported in 2012 that black women were incarcerated in 2010 in the state at nearly three times the rate of their white counterparts. The likelihood of a black woman receiving a lifetime sentence is six times greater than for a white woman.
As for drugs: marijuana is classified as a controlled drug, and possession of even the smallest amount can land an offender a jail sentence, the single most common charge found among Oklahoma’s female prison population.
If she was not exonerated, Miashah was destined to join the state’s female incarceration statistics.
In August, 2014, almost nine months after Miashah’s arrest, an ugly comedy of errors ensued when Judge Caputo finally set Miashah’s bond at $60,000. Bail bondsman Dennis Wharton posted the bond and waived her bail, and Miashah was, for twenty-four hours, free.
The next evening however, at the insistence of Assistant DA Steve Kunzweiler, she was ordered back to court for a hearing — the next morning at 9:00 a.m.
Her attorney, Sharon Holmes, attempted to reach Miashah’s mother that night with no luck, as Chrisandria was working the evening shift at a nursing home with no access to her cell phone. Chrisandria was the prime contact for Miashah, since Miashah did not own a cell phone or car. The hearing began promptly at 9:00 a.m. the next morning in Judge Caputo’s courtroom.
At the meeting, Assistant DA Kunzweiler appeared upset over TV news coverage announcing that Miashah had been released on bond. Judge Caputo, in turn, was upset that Holmes had not advised him of the earlier judge’s no-bond order, handed down at the preliminary hearing. Caputo became further agitated when Miashah failed to appear at the new hearing.
Kunzweiler pushed for a total bond of $1 million, $500,000 for each dead child, but Caputo set a new bond at $250,000 per child, a total of $500,000, and the hearing was adjourned.
Chrisandria finally received Holmes text message fifteen minutes before the 9:00 a.m. hearing was to begin. She and Miashah hurriedly dressed and rushed to the courthouse, arriving around 10:15 a.m. Miashah was promptly handcuffed and taken back to jail.
Meanwhile, unaware of Miashah’s late arrival, Kunzweiler was standing on the courthouse steps advising news reporters that the defendant in the high-visibility case had failed to appear proving she “was a flight risk” and “a danger to the community.”
Kunzweiler was also running for election as the Tulsa District Attorney at the time — an office he would win in November, 2014.
11. A String of Fires
For London Square, the inferno in Apartment #716 was only the latest in a long string of fires that had plagued the complex for years.
On September 30, 2013, less than two months before that fire, a fire in building 400 displaced a dozen families when a tenant, Latoya Berry, was frying chicken and witnessed the stove suddenly erupt in flames. “I don’t know what happened,” Berry said. “I was cooking, it flamed up. I put flour on it. It went everywhere.”
On March 5, 2010, five people in Building 500 barely escaped their apartment when a bedroom wall inexplicably burst into flames. The fire started on the second level of the apartment complex and quickly spread into the attic. Wooden shingles on the roof made controlling the fire difficult. The fire also spread to the basement, where buckets of paint and other cleaning supplies burst into flames. Firemen had to force open several doors and windows to get residents out. Sixty people were displaced. The cause was listed as “undetermined.”
On February 10, 2007, a fire in Building 400 ripped through twenty-seven units. At least fifteen families were displaced, some left homeless. The fire quickly engulfed a large section of the two-story building from the attic to the basement. Anita Hamblin lived in unit #404, directly beneath the second story fire, and was gone at the time. She was forced to move out. The cause was again listed as “undetermined.” Hamblin said there had been another fire early that year too.
Tulsa Fire Department records show a total of nine building fires in London Square since 2002. Internal accounts from tenants and London Square contractors reveal other unreported fires just since the Moses fire in #716, all of which were handled internally by the maintenance crew.
Allen Gorenflo, a handyman electrician and long-time resident at London Square, was often called upon to do electrical work in the complex. He was among the last to work on #716 prior to its rental in 2013. “I lived in the same building. That’s the last unit I worked on,” he said.
When asked to inspect a dysfunctional ceiling fan in the bedroom of #716, he traced it to a hard-wired smoke detector on the same circuit and said something about how the breaker box “didn’t look right.” He says that when he was instructed by a London Square maintenance supervisor to tape electric wires together behind the oven’s back wall — rather than cap them in a junction box as required by code — he abandoned the project. “I may not be a licensed electrician, but I’ve got thirty years’ experience and I don’t do things that way,” he said.
Gorenflo recalled another time when London Square asked him to swap out a number of stove vent hoods. He never asked why, but suspected it had something to do with a grease trap mounted in the vent hood next to a light bulb. He noted that clogged grease traps are highly combustible. If overloaded, the wiring to the light could arc and cause a flashover to the grease trap, enveloping the vent hood in flames and traveling through the wiring to the electric oven and down the hall to the breaker box. When he first moved into London Square, Gorenflo said, he had his own oven replaced after he lifted up the stovetop and observed a half-inch layer of grease beneath the burner.
“I don’t think they ever inspected #716,” he said. “I think a lot of things were swept under the rug.”
12. A “Fire Waiting to Happen”
While the origins of these fires in London Square remain undetermined, Gorenflo was not alone in his observations of electrical problems at London Square. By late 2014, publicity about the case had reached social media, and others were taking note.
On January 29, 2015, a message was posted on a Moses family Facebook page by a person claiming to have information as to the real cause of the fire — and that it wasn’t cooking.
Three days later, Chrisandria and a small group of five huddled in a corner booth of a local café to hear a man named Famous Tankersley present a litany of electrical deficiencies in the aging complex, which he claimed had been ignored by London Square management and passed over by city inspectors. “There’s a young lady in jail right now who shouldn’t be there,” he said.
The family immediately asked him to get in touch with Miashah’s attorney, which Tankersley did, as well as turning over all available evidence. Tankersley is the owner of EWS LLC, an electrical contractor. The company had been hired by London Square’s owner, Paul Forkeotes, as the general electrical contractor to repair Building 400 after the September 30 cooking fire had burned half of the building — the one in which Latoya Berry said her stove had burst into flames.
The documents that Tankersley spread across the table for the Moses family to examine were extensive — numerous engineering reports, internal emails, and technical analyses — coupled with his first-hand knowledge. To hear him tell it, London Square was a dangerous tinderbox, the result of outdated wiring and breaker boxes ill-equipped to handle the electrical load generated by the twenty-four-unit buildings. Over the course of his work, Tankersley said he had found burnt wires running through live circuits inside rusted conduits with no grounding. “Literally, there were melted down raw wires inside of a circuit that is still working,” he said at the meeting. “You’ve got to have proper grounding. You’ve got to have two hot wires, a ground, and a neutral. They didn’t have that. It’s illegally wired.”
“That exact and very apartment was the one management pointed out to me personally as having defective wiring before the fire!” he said later, in a May 2016 email. “Specifically, in Building 700 they didn’t have a ground. They kept losing ground and were always jury-rigging, making it look like it has ground when it didn’t. Grounding is important because it protects circuits from overloading and causing fires. That makes your stove unsafe, too. You get any kind of short in it and they go on their own. They don’t need grease or food, the metal itself will melt.”
Tankersley said the first electrical engineer he contacted, fearing future lawsuits or trials, refused to do the work, saying “it was some of the worst they had ever seen.”
As Tankersley explained it, the point of getting an engineering report was to verify that if the part of the system damaged by the fire was brought up to code, other parts of the system would also have to be brought up to code to handle the increased electrical load. “The engineering reports were to get the insurance company to pay for the electrical upgrades. I had to prove that the electrical was so far out of compliance, so deficient, so dangerous,” Tankersley said.
The engineering firm he eventually hired to evaluate electrical loads prescribed no less than 800 amps per building, with a recommended capacity of 1200 amps to allow for future expansion. “In my house I have a 200-amp electric breaker box,” Tankersley said at the February 2015 meeting. “They have the exact 200-amp breaker box running twenty-four apartments, plus the laundry room, plus the boilers — all of it! There’s no way that can happen.”
But, he said, if London Square were to upgrade to 800 amps, the electric wires coming in from the city are undersized to handle this capacity, which means trenching and running new wires into the complex from PSO, the Public Service Company that is the Oklahoma electric service provider for the Tulsa area — a hefty cost born by the owner.
There were other problems, too. The breakers were insufficient, in his view. “Each apartment has only a 60-amp Zinsco breaker,” he said. “And the electric oven alone pulls 40 to 50 amps. That leaves only one additional electrical outlet before it’s overloaded.” When more outlets are used the electrical load increases and things begin to blow, he explained. Lights flicker and circuits get fried.
It gets worse, he said. According to published manufacturer hazard warnings, the original Zinsco breakers have a twenty-five percent failure rate of tripping from overloads, meaning one in four might not trip when it was supposed to, failing to protect the circuit from overload. “Plus, not a single breaker is wired right,” he added. Tankersley said it appeared as if many of the fifty-year-old wiring and breaker boxes were originally rated for the use of gas ovens, not electric. “It looks like somebody slipped the electric ovens in after the fact. You see gas lines stumped up. And then all of the sudden they disappear. Somebody switched them over to electric.”
He said that if several tenants turn on their ovens at the same time, the lights in neighboring apartments begin to dim, and oven burners begin to heat slower. “I took out all the stoves and all the wires” from Building 400, because they were “burnt” from overload, he said. “The reason is that you’re trying to pull all this current, all the amps, when everyone’s got their stoves on — and then if several tenants turned their ovens off, whoosh — you have a fire.”
Miashah’s dilemma, in Tankersley’s view: “She thought the stove was off and a power surge made a cool stove hot.”
The problem is compounded in the winter, Tankersley said, because tenants use their ovens and space heaters to warm their apartments, adding to the overload. He shook his head. “It was a fire waiting to happen,” he said.
13. Another Voice
Jack Palau was standing on top of Building 400, site of the September fire, when the Moses fire broke out in November 2013.
“I was standing in the attic — most of the roof was gone — and one of the crew members said, ‘There’s another fire. Turn around,’” Palau said. “So we all turned around and there were flames coming out of the side of 700. Smoke was pouring out of the roof.” Along with Tankersley, Palau and the construction crew ran down to 700 to help tenants evacuate.
A balding, bearded man who often speaks in quips, Palau had recently been hired as the insurance adjuster to represent London Square in negotiating a settlement with the insurance provider for repair of fire damage to building 400. He was subsequently asked to negotiate the Building 700 insurance claim, too.
He said that the city refused to allow him access to #716 for nearly a month after the fire, “which was highly unusual.” But when he finally got in, he and Tankersley found more code issues, they said. “In rooms in 700 that only had smoke damage — we were pulling out wires that had melted inside the wall and had actually started electrical fires that then put themselves out somehow,” Palau said. “It was pretty obvious that there were major issues going on.”
According to Palau, on the same day that fire investigators were onsite to investigate the #716 fire, a separate fire broke out in a nearby apartment. “I asked what happened,” he said. The maintenance crew told him that “the guy got up and was cooking his breakfast. It was taking forever to cook, he turned his back, and it burst into flames and burned up all of his cabinets and melted the pan. So it’s the same scenario across the board.”
According to Palau, after an insurance settlement was reached on Building 400, that insurance company dropped the London Square account. A second insurance company covered Building 700 but balked at the total claim amount — which included supplemental payment for upgrades, work that Palau said he felt was necessary to bring the electrical up to code.
For both men, London Square was becoming a moral dilemma. If their assessment of electrical conditions at London Square was correct, this left tenants and their belongings exposed to an unpredictable threat of incineration.
By March of 2014, Tankersley and Palau had come to view both London Square’s owner and the city agencies as hostile. The city’s reluctance to hand over open public documentation to the Moses family — officials ignored requests despite clear public records laws — underscored their nagging suspicion of a possible cover-up of electrical deficiencies in the apartment complex Both men had conversations with maintenance crews during their contract work that they say reinforced their views.
For his part, Tankersley said that shortly after the fire investigation of #716, Miashah’s unit was boarded up and Forkeotes severed his agreement with EWS LLC for repairs and upgrading resulting from the fire damage. And Palau says that after receiving the insurance settlement for Building 700, Forkeotes then terminated his services, too, leaving outstanding invoices unpaid to both men in June 2014. “I would be inclined to hire you again in the event we were to have another fire,” Forkeotes wrote to Palau in a January 2015 email. “The 700 fire last year almost put us out of business. And we have had seven small stove fires since the last fire claim, which indicates we may be going through this process again in the future.”
The discussion of electrical codes — what is legally required and what is simply prudent — can get complicated. One dilemma is that London Square was built in 1965, and thus is largely exempt from current building codes. That means service panels installed fifty years ago to handle 200 amps in each building are still in place to handle current tenant electrical demands fast approaching 800 amps.
Does the law require upgrades in such situations? The City of Tulsa Inspection Supervisor, Dale Gero, does not think so. He explained that London Square’s original electrical installations are grandfathered. Under city code regulations, he said, there is no mandate to upgrade existing electrical systems unless a problem requires a repair of a specific deficiency. “Any building is built under a certain set of codes, but a property owner has a right to maintain what was built lawfully,” he said. “Electricians or inspectors have no obligation to report electrical problems other than those they’ve been asked to work on. Only the portion worked on must be brought up to code.”
Tankersley disputes this, saying National Electrical Code (NEC) regulations stipulate that any electrical part a component “touches” must also be upgraded to current code. In his view, any breakers, wiring, and electrical panels connected to an upgraded portion of the system must also be upgraded to current code.
In June 2014, city inspectors finally cleared Building 700 for occupancy. London Square’s owner, Forkeotes, queried Tankersley in an email: “Can you confirm that it is now safe to occupy all the vacant units including 716?”
“The city says they are safe to occupy,” Tankersley replied. “I disagree with the city. I strongly believe that all the electrical systems in all the buildings must be upgraded. There was burnt live wire pulled out of rusted conduit…. this situation puts people in imminent potential danger of electrocution….I fear that if we do not bring the buildings up to date soon, the city could eventually come in and condemn these buildings. The problem is that severe.”
Addressing unit #716 specifically, Tankersley responded in an email, “If you are asking me point blank if 716 is safe: The right answer is it is as safe as all the other units in non-upgraded electrical buildings. The moral answer is that the electrical system in Building 700 needs to be upgraded….”
Forkeotes’ reaction did little to allay Tankersley’s concerns: “As you have warned me in the past, I am going to have another fire at [London Square]. I would hope that you can still be a trusted contractor to be considered for future work,” he said.
When contacted for comment, Forkeotes was adamant that “trying to blame or assume that any of the London Square fires were due to electrical issues is completely false,” he responded. “All fires were caused by tenants leaving their stoves unattended. None were caused by electrical wires or deficiencies. This is also the conclusion of the investigators.”
Forkeotes has been a part owner and investor in the complex since 2010, along with a foreign investor, National Holding LLC of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He insisted that the only code repairs “required by the City were caused by the fire itself…We are upgrading all wiring caused by the fire in the building where the fire took place.” When asked if he was aware of any other fires in London Square in the last ten years, Forkeotes said he was aware of only three, all caused by “tenants leaving their stoves on while unattended,” he said.
On April 23, 2015, the Tulsa Fire Department responded to yet another fire in London Square. The fire incident report states it started in a downstairs wall in Building 700 and burned across three units. All three were vacant at the time. The cause of the fire was listed as “Undetermined.”
14. Building a Defense
To build a defense requires extensive evidence. So on September 12, 2014, Chrisandria and Keahmiee Moses, the children’s grandmother and mother, sent a Freedom of Information request to Tulsa Fire Chief Ray Driskell, requesting fire forensic data and photographs relating to the #716 fire. The Oklahoma Open Records Procedures Act, implemented in 1995, assures that citizens’ requests “shall be handled promptly.” After several months with no response, Chrisandria phoned the Fire Department records coordinator and was told the request was “under legal review” and she was referred to city legal. She spoke to the legal department twice and received the same response: “under legal review.” More than a year later, the Moses family had yet to receive an answer.
In early January 2015, the Tulsa Fire Department Public Information Officer, Stan May, suggested the Moses family forward a more specific request directly to the head of the Tulsa City Legal Department, David O’Meilia. The second request on January 26, 2015, for “any and all Tulsa Fire Department after-action reports and related photographs” also went unanswered.
Perturbed by the dismissive attitude of city officials, on February 7, 2015, a friend of the family contacted a Tulsa City Council member, G.T. Bynum, whose district included London Square. Bynum attempted to orchestrate a response from the fire and legal departments but was unable to do so. Chrisandria then phoned Bynum’s aide and asked specifically if their request was being ignored because the family was black. This prompted a phone call and a home visit from Chrisandria’s own city councilwoman, Connie Dodson — who also ran into a dead end. Procedures for Oklahoma’s Open Records Act were instituted in Tulsa in 1995 by executive order of the mayor’s office. When Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett’s office was contacted in late 2015, however, a spokesman said the office is not responsible for oversight of the Open Records Act, and didn’t know who was.
By early 2015, Miashah’s attorney, Sharon Holmes, had been elected as the Tulsa County District Court’s first African American female judge. Fred DeMier, with whom she had routinely shared cases, took over Miashah’s defense. DeMier, an Oklahoma native, had been a rodeo bronco rider, pilot, roughneck, skydiver, assistant district attorney, appellate court judge, and, lately, a criminal defense lawyer in Tulsa. In his spare time, he writes crime fiction. With forty-seven years of experience, DeMier was well respected as tenacious and not easily intimidated. He had obtained the DA’s evidence: Miashah’s interrogation, photographs, and copies of all interviews conducted at the scene. Included in the fire department’s evidence was the federal ATF analytical data, detailing the timing, heat source, and levels of heat emanating from the source. (The ATF is frequently called in to help at crime scenes involving possible arson).
DeMier’s partner, Charles Reese, had spent days pouring over the ATF data. At Chrisandria’s urging, DeMier and Reese agreed to meet with her to review their early findings. In the meeting, Reese cut to the bottom line: The skillet could have been left on a heated burner for ten minutes, twenty minutes, or half an hour and not have ignited the fire, he told Chrisandria.
The fire, he said, was electrical.
With the evidence from the investigators at the scene clearly pointing to the pan on the stove as the ignition source, Tulsa Fire Department fire investigators had little reason to consider other factors that could have sparked the fire, such as corrosive conduits or wiring that can generate an arc flash with potentially deadly consequences. (An arc flash develops and can quickly migrate from a single circuit to the phases of the panel itself.) Arc flash temperatures are high enough to liquefy metal.
This was the very condition Gorenflo had feared with the breaker box he examined in #716 — a compromised breaker that offered no defense against an arc flash initiated by faulty wiring in the stove, which, in this case, could explain the pan melted to the coils on the burner, as observed by Fire Marshall Mark Milstead in his testimony. According to Gorenflo’s theory, this could account for the fire investigators’ conclusion that the ignition source was the pan on the stove, when the source of the fire was actually an electrical arc — or the stove itself.
15. A Troubled Past
Miashah’s soft voice and diminutive demeanor mask a fierce independence — a trait that had landed her in court more than once. Her past is not without blemish.
Court records show she pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault and battery charge in 2009 at nineteen, after she fell into a heated argument with another girl that turned combative. Police were called, and the officer had difficulty pulling her off. Twice, after the two had been separated, Miashah lunged back after the girl.
Some three years later, in 2012, a deputy was called to the Tulsa transit bus station where a security guard had tasered Miashah for an unspecified reason. The deputy conducted a pat down and found a cigarette box in her pocket. Assuming from her appearance that she was under age, although she was twenty-one, he advised her she was under arrest for possession of tobacco by a minor. The tobacco charge then became justification for a continued frisk, during which he found “a folded piece of notebook paper in the right front watch pocket” of her jeans containing a small amount of marijuana. Her plea that it was her brother’s jeans did nothing to dissuade the officer. Oklahoma law defines marijuana as a controlled substance, which then resulted in an added charge against Miashah for possession of a dangerous drug. Meanwhile, when the deputy first confronted her she couldn’t produce a driver’s license and gave him a false name, to avoid another arrest. But the deputy found a Social Security card showing her real name and added a felony charge for “impersonation to create liability. ” This then resulted in yet another charge of “obstructing an officer.”
“It was only crumbs,” Miashah said later. “There was no marijuana, just crumbs.”
She was arrested again in September 2012 when she was a passenger in a pickup truck belonging to an acquaintance who said he had permission from a business owner to pick up several junk appliances left in a field behind his business. A neighbor saw them loading rusty washers and dryers into the back of the truck in broad daylight and called the police. The property owner was called to the scene and said he had not given them permission to take the appliances. Miashah was charged with burglary along with the driver.
She had no money to speak of, so her court costs and fines mounted and went unpaid. By the time she moved into #716, in August 2013, her total unpaid court costs and fines had grown to more than $5,000 — the equivalent of nearly a full year’s rent for Keahmiee and the kids at London Square.
And now, Miashah’s murder case was awash in a sea of white faces: DA Tim Harris; Judge James Caputo; Assistant DA Sarah McAmis; lead prosecutor, DA Steve Kunzweiler; and — once Holmes was elected judge and replaced — DeMier, her defense attorney. Even if all the officials were without a bone of prejudice, and even with DeMier, a seasoned attorney, taking on her case on a pro bono basis, Miashah was an African American with an arrest record, one who had already been portrayed in the media as a murderer. She knew it would be an uphill battle.
16. To Plea Or Not To Plea
On August 31, 2015, the day of the scheduled jury trial, DeMier stood before Judge Caputo and reported that he was prepared to proceed. However, the Assistant DA, McAmis, said the state wasn’t ready, and instead offered a plea agreement, a maneuver not totally unexpected in protracted court cases where a negotiated agreement could avoid an expensive jury trial. Caputo scheduled a hearing for two weeks later for the attorneys to present the proposed agreement. The Moses family was hopeful that a reasonable compromise would result in partial exoneration for Miashah — and possibly freedom. Miashah would be transported from jail to Caputo’s courtroom to hear and agree to the decision.
At 2:00 p.m. on September 14, deputies ushered a line of female inmates into the court room chained together at the wrist, all dressed head to toe in prison orange. Miashah, the smallest of the group, was last in line, her hair close cropped, looking like a schoolchild.
One by one, more than a dozen members of the Moses family filed into the courtroom. Kunzweiler, now Tulsa’s newly elected District Attorney, sat in a chair against a wall near the front of the courtroom, focused on his cell phone. His bold stance in prosecuting Miashah’s case — one of the few high-visibility cases during his election campaign — had garnered media attention during his contested runoff election.
DeMier and McAmis entered the room and approached the bench, each looking confident. McAmis announced they had reached a plea agreement, at which point Kunzweiler looked up from his cell phone. Caputo first directed his attention to Miashah and asked her to raise her right hand as best she could to swear to the truth. The wrist chains were so short that when she attempted to raise her hand, the hands of the women on her left involuntarily raised as well.
The judge then asked McAmis to state the terms of the agreement.
“We’re asking ten years, followed by five years’ probation . . .” She didn’t get further.
“That’s not what we agreed to,” DeMier interrupted. McAmis turned and glared at him. They had discussed the agreement only hours earlier. A terse, hushed exchange took place as they tried to reconcile the misunderstanding. It was to no avail.
Miashah was unshackled and DeMier took a seat beside her, whispering intently for several minutes and explaining her choice: She could accept the DA’s plea or move on to a jury trial. In spite of her lengthy incarceration, she chose to let a jury decide. Caputo set the jury trial for May 9, 2016, eight months later.
Outside the courtroom, DeMier proceeded to lift the curtain on the defense argument for waiting reporters: “It was not something cooking on the stove that started the fire,” he said flatly. “But I really can’t go into that.”
When asked about claims that the fire was not caused by cooking, McAmis said prosecutors “look forward to the true facts and evidence about the fire being presented during jury trial.” Both DeMier and Kunzweiler’s offices declined to comment further.
As the Moses family exited the courtroom, television cameras were trained on them. Up to this time, Keahmiee had not been featured prominently in news coverage. Now, wracked by the plea bargain scene after an eight-month delay, the otherwise soft-spoken girl stepped in front of the cameras and delivered a heartfelt defense of Miashah.
“I lost my sister,” she said. “I lost my two children. I buried my two kids when I was nineteen. I finally came to see the reality that I have to deal with it. And it’s hurt me every day.
“She’s my sister. She’s not just a friend. She’s my sister. She’s taken care of my kids for years. I had my first baby when I was only fifteen, and if it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have graduated high school.” Tears were welling up. “They’ve pitted me against my sister.
“We need time to grieve,” she went on. “I thought I would see my sister come out free. It was an accident. It shouldn’t have been dragged out this long. We haven’t had a chance to grieve, and we need to grieve together.”
A reporter shoved a microphone toward her, “What does she say happened that day?”
With that, Chrisandria moved in, a great deal on her mind, including a recent shooting with racial overtones. Only five months earlier, a wealthy seventy-three-year-old Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office Reserve Deputy, a white man named Robert Bates, had mistakenly shot and killed a black man pinned to the ground by another deputy. Bates, a long-time friend and fishing buddy of Tulsa’s Sheriff, Stanley Glanz, had been using his own unauthorized weapon. Since becoming a reserve deputy in 2008, he had donated thousands of dollars for vehicles, guns, and stun guns to the Sheriff’s Department and chaired one of Glanz’s re-election campaigns. For shooting an unarmed suspect point blank, Bates had been charged with second-degree manslaughter, whereas Miashah was charged with second-degree murder for leaving the children for eight minutes to empty the trash.
The disparity was on Chrisandria’s mind as she faced the cameras.
“She doesn’t know what happened that day! But what everybody should know is: This apartment complex keeps having fire after fire. Everybody in here has stepped away from their children for six to eight minutes — you dump your trash, you cut your lawn, you talk to your neighbor. The real question is: Why is her charge second-degree murder when you have the Fire Department saying it was an accident? Everybody saying it was an accident? Then somebody accidentally shoots somebody and is only charged with second-degree manslaughter. Now ask yourself that!”
The reporter was taken aback. “Are you a family member?”
“I’m these girls’ mother,” Chrisandria shot back. The dead girls, she said, “were my grandchildren. And this is wrong. This is all kinds of wrong…. If they want to go to trial, bring it,” she said. With that, she exited the scene.
17. Bunk 2, Cell 5
Miashah has been confined to Pod F-20, a large multi-person chamber with no windows. She spends most of her time watching television or sitting on Bunk 2 of Cell 5, reading her Bible. Women in F-20 do not leave the pod except for meals, and Sunday services, or for medical reasons. Snacks and outgoing phone calls come with a price tag. Incoming calls to jail inmates are not accepted.
Trauma has taken its toll on her. When she is asked about the day of the fire, Miashah gets a bewildered look. When asked how she learned of the children’s death, she looks vacant. She can’t remember.
The same is true for her arrest and questioning by detectives. “Everything just kind of floated past me,” she said of her interrogation. “I don’t think they gave me the proper time to even gather my thoughts because I was in some type of state of shock. The only thing I remember is seeing the fire and trying to save the babies. But everything else was a blur.”
But she says she is at peace with whatever the outcome may be. “The DA doesn’t care if I’m guilty or not. He only wants to convict me,” she said.
“I don’t care what the DA wants. I don’t care what the jury wants,” she said. “I only care what God wants.”
18. Imperfect Justice
While London Square’s shoddy electrical work doesn’t negate the fact that Miashah left two small children unattended for eight minutes. For a curious child, everything is a potential death trap. They could stick a fork in an outlet, or trip and fall and hit their head, or swallow household cleaner.
Way back at Miahshah’s preliminary hearing, in March 2014, the judge grappled with Assistant DA McAmis’s contention that a responsible parent could not leave the room for eight minutes without being charged with second-degree murder if the child died while they are gone.
“Would it have been neglect had a fire not occurred?” the judge asked.
“It could have been, your honor,” McAmis argued.
“So the State could file one that the child was left unsupervised for a minute and something happened and then that is sufficient…?
“I think it’s always fact dependent, Your Honor…”
Miashah’s attorney at the time, Sharon Holmes, disputed the notion. “Your Honor, I would disagree with the state’s position. In order to even use child neglect as a predicate for this offense they’d have to show that the actions taken by Miss Moses were imminently dangerous and also show a depraved mind. Stepping out to empty the trash, we all do it on a daily basis. We don’t know whether the fire started two minutes before — two minutes after she walked out — or three minutes or five minutes after she walked out.
“She was conducting an activity that’s done in the regular course of everyday business. And I would argue that it’s not imminently dangerous to lower the setting on a stove and take the trash out.”
McAmis countered with the argument that what legally constitutes inadequate supervision in this case should ultimately be decided by a jury, not by the state. “Based upon the evidence demonstrated at the preliminary hearing, the defendant left the children alone, unsupervised, behind a dead-bolted door, and with food cooking on the stove for a minimum of eight minutes, during which time a fire erupted and took their lives. It then becomes a question of fact [for a jury] as to whether those eight minutes constitute a ‘failure to provide adequate supervision.’”
McAmis argument may be accurate, but one that exists within an inconsistent, often unfair, system. Two recent similar cases in Tulsa resulted in decidedly different outcomes.
On May 2, 2014, twenty-one-year-old Makayla Rhotenberry put her one and two-year-old girls in the bathtub together and went to the kitchen to start dinner. Affidavits show the mother checked on the girls once and they were fine, but when she went back about ten minutes later, the two-year-old was wandering in the bedroom and the youngest, Avery, was face down in the water. Makayla was charged with “failing to provide proper supervision.” Bond was set at $25,000, and Makayla was released from jail after four days. She was later given four years’ probation on a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter and remains free.
On July 1, 2014, Amber Alexander, the wife of a police officer, failed to check on her two-year-old foster child, Mia, from 7:30 am to 9:30 a.m., when she found her drowned at the bottom of the family swimming pool. The toddler had somehow gotten through an unlocked security gate and out the back door to the pool. Mia was buried in a yellow dress and her favorite red shoes. No charges were filed against Amber, and the family received an outpouring of sympathy.
The tragedy of losing a child is no less for the Moses family than for the Rhotenberry or Alexander families. The three cases have dire similarities, but with one distinguishing difference: Rhotenberry and Alexander are white.
In looking at the Rhotenberry case, it’s difficult to assess the nuance of difference between leaving a child in a bathtub for ten minutes to fix dinner in the next room, and leaving a child in front of a television for eight minutes to carry out the trash.
Amber Alexander failed to check on her two-year-old foster child for a full two hours in the morning with back exits from the house left unsecured. On the other hand, Miashah Moses was attentive to the children, feeding them and changing diapers. She then secured the door to protect against their wandering out and falling to their death, such as little Mia had done when she wandered out and fell into the pool.
More recently, in September 2014, Angela Russell, 34, crashed her 2013 Honda ATV while driving drunk with her two-year-old daughter, Ava, strapped to her chest. The two were thrown from the car and Ava later died. The toxicology report indicated Russell had barbiturates in her system. Like Miashah, Russell was charged with second-degree murder while in the commission of a felony and ordered held on a $500,000 bond. Unlike Miashah, however, her bond was reduced in less than two weeks to $25,000, and she bonded out of jail. And in May 2016, she was given a 25-year suspended sentence and remains free with a DUI monitor. Russell is also white.
How do you weigh which tragedy is more egregious? How do you weigh the grief that will endure for a lifetime? It is difficult, certainly on the scales of justice. Grief knows no color.
19. ‘Stuck in Unforgiveness’
In November 2015, Keahmiee Moses and her children’s father, Tyler Rentie, filed a civil suit against London Square Apartments and the manufacturers of Zinsco breakers for the wrongful deaths of Noni and Nylah. The suit names six manufactures of electrical components as defendants along with London Square and its owners, Paul Forkeotes and National Holdings LLC, headquartered in Abu Dhabi.
When asked to describe the situation, Chrisandria crumbled. “I just don’t understand the fact that they kept having fires…and kept having fires,” she said tearfully. “And it’s the same thing every time…every time. I mean, at the end of the day, you know, whatever happened I have to accept. And I have no problem doing that. And I know everybody’s got their degrees, and they’re specialists…and they know this and they know that,” she wiped tears from her face. “But common sense is just common sense. I know in my gut — and whatever happens, happens — but I know in my spirit that something is not right with that.”
Miashah is scheduled for jury trial, facing a combined sentence of twenty years to life in prison. By this spring she will have spent more than two and a half years in jail already.
“It’s a depressing place,” she said during visiting hours January 2016. “One day I’ll be staring off in space, and all of the sudden I’ll go back to that day. And I want to know why God put me here. I try to understand the guy — and I can’t. I’m stuck in unforgiveness.”
While Miashah’s future has yet to be determined, one twist of fate remains: If, on November 18, 2013, Miashah and her sister had all lived somewhere else, she might have returned home after the trash run to find her nieces alive and happy, watching television right where she left them.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.