"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.

Blake's dog-eared Bible is next to her bed, and she says she finds solace in the lessons it teaches.

"Everything in here means something to me," she says, smiling, "and everything has a story."

Blake's attorneys have allowed her to talk to a journalist -- her first interview since she was arrested -- under one condition: no questions about the fire. But she speaks freely about her three children, saying in a whisper at one point, "I miss them."

Kelly Blake
Kelly Blake
Paramedics rush the horribly burned Blake to Maricopa Medical Center. She was not expected to survive, but she did.
courtesy 3 tv
Paramedics rush the horribly burned Blake to Maricopa Medical Center. She was not expected to survive, but she did.

She gestures to a colorful ceramic bowl on her windowsill that "I somehow put together" in memory of her slain son, Ray. She says she hopes to put it on his grave someday. Another piece of artwork dedicated to little Venessa is in the facility's art room.

Those who know her say Blake has changed. She says intensive psychiatric counseling and a psychotropic drug regimen have allowed her to gain insight into who she is and what she's done.

"I always kept my problems to myself, even when I was supposedly getting help," she says. "You don't want to admit that you're having a major struggle. How do you tell people that you're going insane? Do you sit down with them over tea and say, 'I'm wigging out'? I know now I was getting worse and worse, more paranoid, but I didn't know what to do."

Blake peers out her window for a moment, then says she wants to make something clear:

"I'm sitting here because of what I did, though I wasn't thinking then like I am now."

She says she doesn't worry about what may happen to her: "What I worried about is my son, and what he's going through, and what's going to happen with him. I'm worried about being a burden. But I'm not worried about my relationship with God, because I know He's there for me and for my kids."

Blake is sitting in her wheelchair in a light blue nightgown, her feet swathed in heavy-duty slippers that allow her to push herself around the facility. She is demonstrative with her stubby arms, and has developed a dark sense of humor about her plight.

"I'm not trying to get a sun tan, believe me," she tells a nurse who worries about her bright-red face.

Her hair -- once a source of great pride to her -- has grown back, making her "look a lot better than I used to."

Even now, Blake's appearance is unsettling at first. But the initial impact is diminished after conversing with her for a time.

"I know that people may see me as a monster, inside and outside," she says, "and there's nothing I can do about it. I can just be me."

Children from a nearby elementary school regularly visit the facility where Blake lives, eating lunch and chatting with the patients. Blake has bonded with some of the youngsters, including a 6-year-old named Irma.

She displays a note that Irma wrote to her after one visit.

"I love you, Kelly, because you're so special," the girl wrote. "You're like a Mom.... You are my heart."

The note, Kelly Blake says, makes her both happy and sad.

"I know I am not in my right mind."

-- from Kelly Blake's diary, March 1998

It shouldn't have surprised anyone who knew Kelly Blake that she would have taken her children with her when she'd had enough of this life.

Her kids were her life.

Blake was fixated on her kids, something that became more curse than blessing as her sanity eroded.

Unlike most parents, she grew more possessive of her children as they got older, monitoring their every move. Though she was a high school dropout herself, Blake insisted on home-schooling her brood. During the two years or so before the fire, Blake would regularly take them with her to her part-time job as a maintenance worker at a condominium complex.

Johanna Phalen, who lives at the complex, says she knew Blake was troubled. But she adds that the mother and her children endeared themselves to the residents.

"The feeling I was getting was of a person who was in pain, and had no one to help her," Phalen says. "She was pleasant and hardworking, and it was obvious something was wrong, and I knew I couldn't help. Her kids were always with her, and they were the nicest, most well-mannered kids.

"She was a lovely looking woman, with beautiful long hair. I always thought it was too bad that she had to work so hard, and didn't have a little better life."

The adjectives friends, family and others use to describe Kelly Blake are telling: desperate, lonely, troubled, confused, obsessed, overwhelmed. They also use the words devoted, determined, stubborn, independent, sweet.

Until the moment she burned her children, no one would have described her as violent or evil.

"To this day, I would hire her, house her, and help her in any way she would let me," says Reyna Mitchell, who was Blake's landlord for several months in the mid-1990s. "She was dedicated to protecting and providing for her children, and ensuring that they had a roof over their heads and a decent home life."

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