"Danger to Children"

Why did Kelly Blake douse her kids with gas and set them on fire? She's seriously mentally ill -- and she was deserted by the system charged with protecting her and her family.

-- from Kelly Blake's diary, March 1998, days before the fire

Deacon Tony Beltran of St. Matthew's Catholic Church avoided mentioning Kelly Blake during funeral services for Venessa and Ray. Instead, he focused on the concept of eternal life.

"It's not for us to figure out what happened or why it happened," he said of the tragedy.

Firefighters covered the body of 9-year-old Venessa Fausto beneath a sign in the backyard on East Clarendon.
Firefighters covered the body of 9-year-old Venessa Fausto beneath a sign in the backyard on East Clarendon.
Firefighters had been summoned to a "shed fire," but found something much worse.
Firefighters had been summoned to a "shed fire," but found something much worse.

But that's exactly what everyone wanted to know. And who was this person -- a mother, no less -- who would suggest a game of hide-and-seek, then blindfold her children, lead them into a small shed, close the door behind her, pour gasoline on and around them, then ignite the room?

Blake's actions seemed a blend of premeditation and inexplicable impulse. In entwining their fiery fate with hers, she seemed to have forgotten that her children had the right to their own existences.

Her surviving son, Johnny, listened stoically to the deacon. He's a brave young man who probably escaped death because he'd been closest to the door when the shed ignited.

He'd had the presence of mind to alert neighbors to call 911, and the courage to return to the blaze and extract his mortally burned brother. His sister, however, was engulfed in flames, and Johnny couldn't reach her.

Kelly Blake survived because she shattered a window across from the shed door, and leaped out headfirst, severing fingers as she did.

Says deputy fire chief Bob Khan, "If you've ever been in a fire, you know that your instinct to survive will surpass just about anything else. You have time just to react, and your body forces you to want to survive, even if your plan was to commit suicide. Every intuition is to get out, and that's what she did."

Johnny Fausto helped tote his brother's turquoise casket, draped in a Phoenix Suns blanket, to a cemetery near the chapel. A Winnie-the-Pooh blanket covered Venessa's tiny pink coffin. Johnny lost his composure briefly, moments before his siblings' caskets were lowered into the ground.

Several firefighters who attended the services wept openly at the magnitude of the loss.

"God has blessed me with this job and an ability to do it well," says Autry Cheatham, a father of three. "I know I'm going to see some things along the way that don't make sense to me. You can punish me in any way you can think of, but don't burn me. Then to see someone who is already burned and has to be hurting, and she's dousing herself with gas on top of that ...

"I was trying to make sense of it as a parent. We are supposed to provide security for our kids, to direct and guide them, not burn them up. I had to realize that some things just aren't going to make sense."

Two years after the fire, it's easier to speculate on what Blake's motivations for murder were not.

Though she is widely reviled, Blake isn't a Debbie Milke -- now on Arizona's death row for having orchestrated the murder of her young son -- or a Susan Smith, who strapped her sons into car seats and drowned them. Both of those women were torn between their children and suitors who didn't fancy being stepfathers.

Though she was attractive, Blake hadn't even dated in years.

And she certainly hadn't done it out of fury at her kids. After all, Blake intended to die with her children.

Finally, Kelly Blake wasn't a modern-day Medea, hell-bent on avenging her man's unfaithfulness by murdering her children.

Reports surfaced of Blake's bouts with depression (true), of recently having become unemployed (untrue), of her intense religious faith (true), and that she was a poor single mother who shunned welfare (true).

Blake attempted a more specific explanation during a brief August 1998 interview with Phoenix police: "I remember thinking that there's just no way out, and I was wondering what was going to happen to my kids.... There's nobody to watch them or take care of them right. I, I, I remember, oh, God! It wasn't something I thought about. It was just something that came to my mind."

She does fit the mold of several women included in a 1996 University of South Carolina study of mothers who'd killed their offspring. The study identified so-called "stressors" present in most of the cases:

Almost all the murdering mothers had two or more children whom they were raising alone in some degree of poverty. Four in five in the study suffered from diagnosable serious mental illnesses. But only one in five had been getting medication, counseling or other treatment when they'd killed.

Maricopa County prosecutors say they delayed pursuing murder and other charges against Blake until her survival seemed assured. That remained in doubt for months, as she underwent more than a dozen reconstructive operations. But the damage she's done to herself is permanent: She's lost her nose, her ears, hands, and her body is a wheelchair-bound mire of oozing wounds and scar tissue. She's forever lost her ability to tend to life's necessities -- cleaning herself, feeding herself, using the bathroom without aid.

To this day, she continues her painful rehabilitation at a long-term-care facility in central Phoenix. She says she looks a lot better now than she did even a few months ago, but her appearance is startling to the uninitiated.

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