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Bond denied in fatal fire case

Local soldier's wife is transferred to Kentucky to face charges

POSTED: November 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.

A Gainesville soldier’s wife devised a cover story of a mysterious threatening phone call before setting fire to the couple’s on-base apartment, with hopes of cashing in a $100,000 life insurance policy on her husband, a federal prosecutor theorized in arguments and testimony presented Friday.

Billi Jo Smallwood “set fire to her own home, in hopes of potentially killing her husband, and wound up killing her kids,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Gabay-Smith told a magistrate judge in a bond hearing for Smallwood.

Two of Smallwood’s three children, Sam, 9, and Rebekah, 2, died in the May 2007 blaze at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Smallwood, 35, was arrested Tuesday in Gainesville following an 18-month investigation by the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. She will be transferred to Kentucky to face charges of destruction of government property by fire resulting in death after U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Susan Cole denied bond Friday.

Smallwood faces a potential death sentence if convicted.

Cole heard testimony Friday from a U.S. Army criminal investigator who said burns to Smallwood’s legs and forearm were consistent with someone leaning over to start a fire.

Arson investigators determined the fire set at the couple’s on-base apartment was started with gasoline poured on the floor, U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Division Special Agent Matthew Cummings testified. Investigators found melted remnants of a plastic gas can in the apartment, and Smallwood admitted to buying a gas can, Cummings said.

“She said she bought it earlier in the day to mow the lawn,” Cummings testified. “However, a gasoline can in the shed outside was already present.”

Cummings said on the night of the fire, Smallwood told her husband, U.S. Army Spc. Wayne Smallwood, that she received a threatening phone call at about 7:30 p.m. from someone who said, “Wayne needs to watch his back.” She also told at least one neighbor about the call, Cummings said.

When the ATF reviewed phone records, they could find no call placed to the home at that time, Cummings testified.

According to the investigator, Billi Jo Smallwood said she awoke at about 1 a.m. on the night of the fire to a loud crashing noise. She said she went downstairs to investigate and saw a “blue creek of flame” on the floor.

Arson investigators noted that the “blue creek” phenomenon only lasts a few seconds in an intentionally set fire, and could only be seen by the person who set the fire or someone who sees it ignited, according to Cummings.

Billi Jo Smallwood told investigators she screamed to her sleeping husband, “They’re in the house! The house is on fire!”

She grabbed the couple’s youngest child, 18-month-old Nevaeh, and opened the door to Sam’s room as it filled with smoke. She then crawled out of the room and escaped the flames. Her husband jumped from a second-story ledge and injured his leg in the fall. Sam and Rebekah died from smoke inhalation.

Neighbors saw Billi Jo Smallwood try to re-enter the home before firefighters arrived, according to Cummings, but she had no smoke inhalation injuries.

In the aftermath, investigators found all four tires on Wayne Smallwood’s car slashed and a threatening message scratched into the side of the car. They later found a knife inside the home consistent with the cuts to the tires, the investigator testified.

The doors and windows to home were locked from the inside, ruling out forced entry, Cummings said.
A pair of smoke detectors were disconnected in the home, including one that was found on top of a high chair that Billi Jo Smallwood used to feed her 2-year-old daughter earlier that night, he said.

Billi Jo Smallwood later refused to take a polygraph test after her husband consented, Cummings testified. He said like all active-duty soldiers, Wayne Smallwood had a $100,000 life insurance policy for untimely death. The couple had been experiencing “rocky” times prior to the fire, Cummings testified.

In deciding to deny bond, the judge noted the potential death sentence Smallwood faced as a factor in her being a flight risk. She also took note of the evidence presented by the government.

“While the evidence may be different at trial, at this point the evidence appears strong against Mrs. Smallwood,” Cole said.

Wayne Smallwood stood in support of his wife during Friday’s hearing. He was one of more than 15 friends and family members who watched from the gallery.

Billi Jo Smallwood’s mother and a family friend both testified on her behalf. Her mother, Rebecca Rotz of Brunswick, was asked by federal public defender Jimmy Hardy whether Wayne Smallwood still supported his wife.

“Yes,” Rotz said. “He keeps telling me he is behind her 200 percent.”



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