The wife of a soldier from Gainesville faced a federal judge Tuesday after tearfully proclaiming her innocence to intentionally killing two of her children in an arson fire.
Billi Jo Smallwood, 35, could face the death penalty if convicted of setting fire to the on-base residence she and her husband Wayne Smallwood shared at Fort Campbell, Ky. Her children Rebekah Smallwood, 2, and Samual Fagan, 9, died in the May 29, 2007 fire.
In court documents, federal authorities claim the arson was premeditated, that she knew children would die, and that it was committed for money.
Billi Jo Smallwood, who is separated from her husband, most recently lived in Brunswick but was arrested Tuesday in Gainesville after a federal grand jury returned a two-count indictment against her last week. She was brought by marshals to an initial court appearance Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, where her husband and some of his fellow soldiers looked on solemnly from the gallery. Smallwood, with short, reddish hair and wearing a black pantsuit and leg irons, wept through much of the brief court proceeding.
She tearfully answered Magistrate Judge Susan Cole’s questions about her understanding of her rights and the charges.
"I don’t understand everything," Smallwood said, before motioning to her attorney, federal public defender Jimmy Hardy, and adding, "but he explained it to me."
Before the hearing began, Smallwood turned around in her chair at the defense table, looked toward her husband, and with a wrenched expression, mouthed the words, ‘I didn’t do it.’
Wayne Smallwood declined to speak with a reporter after the hearing.
Billi Jo Smallwood is not technically charged with arson or murder. The indictment charges her with malicious damage by fire to property owned by the United States and malicious damage and destruction by fire to property owned by the United States resulting in deaths.
The indictment was returned Thursday by a grand jury in Paducah, Ky., and unsealed Tuesday. In the document, the grand jury made seven so-called "special findings," the federal equivalent of a state’s "aggravating circumstances," which would permit a prosecutor to seek the death penalty.
Among the grand jury’s special findings: "the defendant committed the act after substantial planning and premeditation to cause the death of a person" and "the defendant committed this act as consideration for, and in expectation of receiving, anything of pecuniary value."
Dawn Masden, a spokeswoman for Western District of Kentucky U.S. Attorney David Huber, would not comment on whether federal prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty against Smallwood.
Wayne Smallwood has deep roots in the Gainesville area. One of nine siblings, he attended North Hall High School and lived in Gainesville up until his enlistment in the Army in 2005, his brother Virgil told The Times last year, when a fund was set up for the family.
Wayne Smallwood recently had completed a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq with the 101st Airborne when the fire occurred.
Officials said the fire was contained to a single unit of a six-unit complex. Firefighters responded at 1:33 a.m. and the fire was under control at 2:03 a.m.
In the aftermath of the fire, Billi Jo Smallwood was treated at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville for severe burns and Wayne Smallwood sustained a broken ankle from leaping from the roof of the two-story apartment, according to the family. The couple’s 18-month-old daughter Nevaeh survived the fire.
The case has been investigated for the past 18 months by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In June 2007, the ATF announced the fire was the result of arson.
Barring a guilty plea, Smallwood’s case will be heard in the Western District of Kentucky.
Smallwood’s attorney told the judge she is seeking bond. Cole set a Friday court hearing to hear evidence before making a decision on bond.