By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Grant Them Your Unending Strength And Courage In Their Duty Assignments."
-- from the Firefighter's Prayer
Phoenix fire Captain Autry Cheatham and his crew had just picked up their lunch when dispatch alerted them to a nearby shed fire.
The four hoped the call would be brief as they arrived at 1222 East Clarendon, just 79 seconds later. It was 11:32 a.m., March 20, 1998.
But what they observed as they pulled up to the home stunned them.
Firefighter Gayland Bass recalls:
"As I was going up to the fire, I was met by a little young guy who told me that his mother was trying to kill them, and she had set them on fire with gas. As I got him out of the way, I took a couple more steps. His brother was there, another little guy was there on fire. Pulled him out of the fire into the yard.
"... I see the mother on the back porch with a can of gasoline, dousing herself with gas ... walking back and forth. I hit her with the hose line to put her out, and I knocked her down to the ground.... [Then] we found another little girl in the shed ... I just saw her hands, and I just blanked out."
Firefighter Geronimo Ramirez Jr. picks up the narrative:
"I thought I saw something moving in the backyard, and it just kind of looked like a mass there, a dark mass. And I looked at it again closer, and I could see it had feet."
The mass was Kelly Louise Blake, a 34-year-old mother of three.
"There was still some steam coming off her and stuff, so I went ahead and wet her with the hose."
Cheatham burst into the scorching shed to try to rescue Blake's daughter, 9-year-old Venessa Fausto. His gear caught fire, but he didn't stop.
"I was digging through the debris trying to get to the arm, because that's all you saw was her arm," he told police that day. "Once I got enough stuff off of her, I reached down and grabbed her arm and pulled her out. It was kind of obvious that she was dead at that point. We took her around the back and put her on the slab, and covered her up."
The girl's grotesquely disfigured body lay under a bright blue blanket, next to a handpainted sign that read, "J R Snow Cones." It stood for the first names of Johnny Fausto Jr. and his younger brother, Ray; the boys used the sign when they hawked the treats in the neighborhood.
Paramedic Suzie Gaw soon arrived with Engine 9. She saw 14-year-old Johnny cradling his horribly burned 12-year-old brother in the carport outside the shed door.
Johnny had suffered only superficial burns, and he told Gaw what had happened. She relayed his comments to a Phoenix police investigator minutes later:
"[He said] 'She tried to kill us. She told us we were going to play a game.... She splashed us with gas everywhere and started the fire. My sister is dead -- I just know it. She's still in the shed. I got my brother out, and I just ran.'"
The firefighters lifted Ray and his mother into ambulances. Each was in extremely critical condition.
Johnny tried to comfort his brother on the ride to Maricopa Medical Center. On a scale of 1 to 10, according to Autry Cheatham, "[Ray's] suffering was probably 15. He was awake, and he could feel parts of his body that had been burned."
But another paramedic reported Ray had been able to speak on the six-minute trip, repeating, "'My mom is crazy.'"
Back on Clarendon, the children's grandmother, Josephine Fausto, had returned to the home she shared with the family of four. Her son, John Fausto Sr., was the father of Blake's three kids, though the pair never married and had broken up years earlier.
"How could she do this to her kids?" Josephine wailed, as the neighborhood filled with media and passers-by.
Ray Fausto died that night.
His mother clung to life in a medically induced coma, having suffered third-degree burns over 90 percent of her body. Doctors gave her scant chance to survive.
But she did, destined to forever bear the horrific physical scars of her maniacal act. She will be tried for murder.
"It is what it is," a tearful Blake told New Timeslast week. "It is what it is, and I did what I did. And I loved my kids and I love my kids. I know that."
Kelly Blake is seriously mentally ill. She was diagnosed as such a full seven years before her violent paroxysm. Weeks before she started the fire, she sought help repeatedly -- one nurse even labeled her "Danger to children."
But the system that is supposed to help keep potentially dangerous patients like Blake from hurting themselves and those around them failed catastrophically.
"I think what my problem is that I went through another nervous breakdown. Too much weighing on me -- responsibility, disappointment ... I wrestle with my thoughts all day long trying to find a way out of this crazyness. Looking for answers, not trusting myself. Afraid of myself."
-- 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.
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.
"Kelly is completely at the mercy of others," one of her attorneys wrote in a recent court pleading.
Veteran prosecutor Noel Levy likely will adopt a different take on that theme when Blake is tried for murder and other charges: that Blake's kids were at her mercy when she'd torched them with gas purchased with money she'd borrowed from Johnny.
In September, a Superior Court judge ruled Blake legally competent to stand trial. If convicted, she'll face life in prison, though it remains to be seen if state corrections officials will be able to accommodate her medical needs.
A guilty-except-insane verdict is a possibility, which would put Blake at the Arizona State Hospital (provided that institution could handle her medical needs), perhaps for the rest of her life. Defense attorneys surely will ask jurors to consider her mental state at the time of the crimes.
Civil attorneys already are sparring over that very topic. On March 18, 1999, Phoenix attorney Art Gorman filed a civil lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court on behalf of Blake and her surviving son, John Fausto Jr.
It alleges that several mental-health agencies and their employees "failed to properly diagnose Blake's condition, failed to properly medicate and treat her, failed to hospitalize her, and failed to warn that she was a danger to herself and her children."
The defendants include Southwest Behavioral Health Services and ComCare, a quasi-government agency responsible in Maricopa County at the time for contracting with clinics such as Southwest Behavioral.
Their attorneys have responded, saying that Blake "did not exhibit signs that she was a danger to herself, or to others, including her children, and therefore, [Southwest Behavioral] did not warn that [Blake] was a danger to herself and her children ..."
Blake's medical records suggest otherwise. They depict a woman gripped by a diagnosed serious mental illness who got little help in battling it.
Contrary to Southwest Behavioral's claims, its own records show that a nurse made a chilling notation after Blake came to its urgent care clinic on February 23, 1998, one month before killing her kids:
Melanie Henraty wrote: "Danger to children."
During that visit, Blake herself wrote on her admission form, "I am having severe insomnia with thoughts of su." But rather than complete the word that began "su" -- it surely would have been "suicide" -- she crossed it out.
Other paperwork shows that clinic personnel learned while Blake was there that she'd been deemed seriously mentally ill in 1991. Reports from that year included an entry from a county hospital nurse that echoed Henraty's own haunting assessment:
"Client related to Maricopa Medical Center staff thoughts of hurting her children."
No one can say for sure if prompt, proper treatment would have stopped Blake from acting on her sickest impulses. But the evidence against the county's mental-health system is damning.
Being classified as seriously mentally ill in Arizona is supposed to mandate comprehensive treatment services.
That didn't happen in Kelly Blake's case.
Instead, those in charge of her mental welfare -- especially the psychiatrist assigned to treat her -- disregarded or ignored the systemic safeguards designed to protect the Blakes of the world from hurting themselves and others.
That February 23, Dr. Bill Sbilris -- who worked at Southwest Behavioral's urgent care clinic (a kind of psychiatric emergency room) -- conducted a cursory interview with Blake. Then he wrote her a prescription for a sleep-inducing drug, and sent her on her way.
Sbilris noted that Blake had told him she wasn't homicidal or suicidal, and had no psychiatric history. But records accessed by clinic workers minutes earlier -- Sbilris apparently didn't peruse them -- showed Blake was dramatically understating her mental history.
She returned to the clinic eight days later, March 3, claiming the sleeping pills weren't working. Sbilris again saw Blake for a few minutes, changed her prescription, jotted some notes about her "vague" psychiatric history -- it was anything but vague -- and turned her loose.
Neither Sbilris, nor anyone else at Southwest Behavioral, warned those closest to Blake -- Josephine Fausto or family members -- that the addled mother posed a danger to her kids. Their failure to do so is a crucial component of Blake's civil lawsuit. (See accompanying story.)
The next day, she went to St. Luke's Medical Center emergency room to complain about her insomnia. "Patient [is] weak and [has] low level of function -- thinks [she] may need to have thyroid checked. Trouble sleeping."
Again, doctors sent Blake home within a few hours with yet another prescription for stress-related sleeplessness.
Sixteen days later, she bought a can of gas.
Kelly Blake shows what she calls "my house" to a visitor. It's a tidy room at a central Phoenix long-term-care facility that she shares with an ailing elderly woman.
Blake's part of the room is cheerfully appointed. The first things she sees when she awakens are family photos tacked to the wall.
She has a collection of stuffed bears -- presents from friends and family -- and a framed still-life painting that she completed months ago: She paints with pastels by wedging the brush between the knotted stubs that once were hands, then slowly works the canvas.
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."
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."
Blake herself grew up in a middle-class Phoenix home. She had an older brother, John. Blake's parents split up when she was small, and her mother, Sandra, remarried when Kelly was about 5, to a man named Reed Juett. That couple had one child together, Michael, before they got divorced in 1990.
Kelly Blake attended Alhambra High School, where, she concedes, she was a wild child before dropping out in 1980. Friends say she became a born-again Christian in her late teens, around the time she and John Fausto Sr. met and became serious.
They were a mercurial pair, an on-again, off-again couple. Their union produced Johnny in 1984, then Ray, and, finally, Venessa.
Blake and Fausto were always short of money. She started a one-woman house-cleaning business, but her three small children were her priority.
In the late 1980s, Blake embraced the teachings of a small Christian congregation based in west Phoenix. The church's leaders urge parents to curb their children's contact with "evil" influences -- television, popular music, even other children. Blake dropped off the welfare rosters, and eschewed government health insurance for her children.
(Attorneys for ComCare and Dr. Sbilris suggested in recent court pleadings that "the Ambassador Church may have caused and/or contributed to Kelly Blake's attempt to take her own life and/or the lives of her children.")
Blake left John Fausto in mid-1990, and lived for a time with a fellow church member. Fausto's widowed mother, Josephine, then allowed Blake and the kids to move into her home on Clarendon with her.
Blake has a history of depression in her family, and by early 1991, her own mental state was deteriorating. That March, she told her mother, who then lived in the Valley, that she planned to kill herself. Her mother convinced her to check herself into the county hospital.
"I didn't see any light, nothing. I was very, very confused. I wanted a lot for my kids, you know. I was saying ... 'I just can't do it no more.'"
-- Kelly Blake, in an August 1998 interview with police
When Blake checked into Maricopa Medical Center on March 26, 1991, she told a nurse she was scaring herself.
"I've seen some demonic things when I go to sleep," the nurse quoted Blake as saying. "People in dark robes. I hear things -- not voices, but sirens -- the ice cream truck and the wind. Yet when I look out, there is no wind.... I get these weird scary thoughts of hurting my children. Real bad stuff."
But Blake asked to be released after four days on the psych ward.
"I feel worse than when I came in," she told a social worker. "My kids really need me to be at home with them.... You can't keep me, right?"
"Explained to patient that she needs to stay longer for own good, but patient refuses," the social worker reported.
The hospital released Blake on April 2, after diagnosing her with a mental illness called "schizoaffective-bipolar type."
A medical journal defines schizoaffective disorder as an illness "in which there are both severe mood swings (mania and/or depression), and some of the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia."
The journal calls the disorder "a lifelong illness for most people.... Most people have a flare-up of symptoms periodically in times of stress. They may be severe enough to limit functioning and may make hospitalization necessary."
Treatment for the illness, the journal says, usually is a combination of therapy, medicine and skills training.
"Recovering from schizoaffective disorder is an extremely lonely experience," Dr. Phillip Long wrote in a separate article, "and these patients require all the support that their families, friends and communities can provide. [It] appears to be a combination of a thought disorder, mood disorder, and anxiety disorder."
Long said schizoaffective patients should maintain a lifelong regimen of antipsychotic, antidepressant and antianxiety medications. But he noted that few afflicted patients keep up with their medications on their own.
The doctor warned, "Untreated schizoaffective disorder will often leave a patient friendless, penniless, and homeless. Thus, circumstances often force schizophrenic patients to rely heavily on their family or psychiatric group homes. There is frequently an inverse relationship between the stability of their living situation and the amount of antipsychotic drugs they require."
The stability of Kelly Blake's "living situation" was tenuous at best.
The day she left the county hospital in April 1991, Blake reported to an outpatient clinic run by the East Valley Behavioral Health Association.
"Client agreed to continue to take meds," a caseworker wrote that day. "Client will be discharged to her mother-in-law's home, where she and her three children can be monitored -- supported."
Blake reported to the clinic every other week for three months, but seemed to regress. In May 1991, a nurse wrote that Blake felt "detached from everything, including her children."
Still, East Valley Behavioral closed Blake's file that July, after advising her to continue treatment with another agency.
Instead, Blake decided to try to go it alone.
"I'm still searching for answers in my mind. What if I do this or what if I do that? Trying to figure a way to make it work, then I think of something else. Wavering. Trying to make it work in my mind. The first thing I need to do is get something for my nerves. I am panicking. I need to lighten up."
-- undated entry from Kelly Blake's diary
Kelly Blake toiled to pull her life together after her stay at the county mental ward. She continued with her house-cleaning business, took classes at GateWay Community College, attended church regularly and, as always, spent most of her time with her children.
In July 1993, she found steady work as a driver for the company that runs the Dial-A-Ride program.
The job started at only $4.88 an hour, but she says she loved it, and bonded with many of her riders -- some of whom had physical handicaps. One of them, Phoenix resident John Mollis, who suffers from cerebral palsy, recalls:
"Kelly was a sweetie. She showed me a lot of compassion, and she was always talking about how proud she was of her children. I knew she had a lot on her mind, but never, never, never would I have ever thought she'd hurt them."
With a steady paycheck coming in, Blake rented her own apartment in October 1993, near North Seventh Street and Glendale Avenue. She says she chose that area so her kids could matriculate in the highly regarded Madison School District.
"I was impressed with Kelly from the start," says her landlord at the time, Reyna Mitchell. "I had met the children when she had come to our office, and was also impressed by them. They respected their mom, and sat quietly at our reception area looking through magazines. The older boy [Johnny] even shared his chair and talked about the magazines with the little ones."
But the $525 monthly rent proved to be more taxing than Blake had reckoned. Her payments lagged, though Mitchell allowed her to pay late when she had to.
The pressures of Blake's life again overcame her. In March 1994, she applied to enter the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's medical program for indigents. Days after she was accepted, she checked into Phoenix's St. Joseph's Hospital.
"Patient apparently has been under a lot of stress, mostly from home," says a hospital note from April 2, 1994. "She has developed some anxiety, and is very stressed. She has not been able to sleep. She denies any suicidal ideations. She just wants to get some rest and relax, so she can take care of her kids ..."
St. Joe's sent her home with some prescriptions.
Ten days later, on April 12, Blake drove to the Maricopa Medical Center, claiming that she was too anxious to sleep.
She had "many stressors," a doctor there wrote, including three young children, no support from her family, long hours at work, and little money: "Has had ... racing thoughts, sweats, some feelings of paranoia. These attacks last a couple of hours -- she talks herself down."
Blake agreed to meet a few days later with a ComCare caseworker. She didn't show up.
Blake gave notice at her apartment complex soon after that. Josephine Fausto agreed to take her in again on Clarendon. Losing her independence was a blow, Blake says, but she saw no alternative.
She also took made another significant adjustment. With her move back to Clarendon, Madison School District officials told her she'd have to transfer her children -- then ages 10, 8 and 5 -- to another district. Longview Elementary is a short walk from the home on Clarendon, but Blake says she didn't like the school.
Instead, Blake home-schooled her kids -- "I did a lot of Bible-based stuff, and taught them a lot of crafts and other practical stuff," she says -- from then until March 20, 1998.
"I'm not going to make it through."
-- Kelly Blake, at the Southwest Behavioral Health Services Urgent Care Center, February 23, 1998
In late 1995, the Dial-A-Ride company fired Blake; she hadn't returned to work after taking a two-month leave of absence. She scraped by without the benefit of food stamps or other welfare aid for which she'd have qualified. She'd also let her AHCCCS card lapse, and she and the kids again had no health-care insurance.
Blake did odd jobs at a mobile-home park for a time, then in August 1996 was hired part-time as a maintenance worker at a condo complex on Palm Lane.
But her mind continued to betray her. Blake wasn't getting counseling, and wasn't taking any medicine to help control her chronic mental illness. She'd also had a falling-out with her church.
"They kicked her out because she said she wasn't in the Spirit, or something," Blake's son Johnny later told police.
Her explanation: "I've always had a rebel streak in me, and I got crossways with some of the people there, that's it."
Blake's relationship with Josephine Fausto was fragile. The older woman didn't charge her rent, which was a godsend. But the strain in the small home on Clarendon sometimes was palpable.
In January 1998, Blake made amends with her old church. But it couldn't provide a haven from the demons of her encroaching mental illness.
"My son asked me, 'Mom, why didn't you tell me how bad you were feeling?' I told him he was just a kid at the time, that's why."
-- Kelly Blake, in an interview last week with New Times
On the evening of February 23, 1998, Kelly Blake drove to Southwest Behavioral's urgent care center on East Thomas Road for help.
The county's mental-health system was in more turmoil than usual at the time, which is saying something. Months earlier, the Arizona Department of Health Services had assumed control of ComCare after the nonprofit firm had run aground, leaving many seriously mentally ill people without a safety net.
Already concerned with containing costs, the system was stretched dangerously thin when Blake sought help. Still, Southwest Behavioral officials that night ably documented Blake's status as a seriously mentally ill woman who posed a "danger to children" -- even though she'd understated her psychiatric history.
It's commonplace for incoming patients to fib about their mental-health history, says Valley psychiatrist Dave Coons. "People who are trying to hold it together don't generally walk in someplace and say, 'I have a schizoaffective disorder.'"
Records show psychiatrist Bill Sbilris spent about 15 minutes with Blake that night, then scribbled his assessment of her, simply drawing a line through questions about the patient's possible suicidal or homicidal tendencies.
Says Dave Coons, "If you've got five or 10 minutes to evaluate someone as a psychiatrist, you know you're not getting the straight poop -- I don't care if you're Sigmund Freud.... This guy [Sbilris] never had the chance to be a good psychiatrist."
Sbilris sent Blake home with a prescription for her sleep problems, and gave her phone numbers to call in an emergency.
Eight days later, on March 3, 1998, Blake returned to the clinic, saying the medications weren't working. "Patient feels as though she will go crazy if she can't sleep," a nurse noted on Blake's assessment form that day.
This time, Blake told of her 1991 commitment at the county mental ward, but insisted she'd been treated for "insomnia," not her true, more severe diagnosis -- bipolar schizoaffective disorder.
But officials at Southwest Behavioral knew -- as they had known during Blake's first visit -- that she was fibbing about her lack of a psychiatric track record. They knew this because their computer listed her as seriously mentally ill.
The following day, March 4, Blake went alone to St. Luke's Medical Center. A doctor there examined her briefly, then prescribed a new set of meds for stress and insomnia. Again, she skipped her appointment with a crisis counselor a few days later.
The mental-health professionals again left Kelly Blake to her own sick devices -- but with good reason, an attorney for Maricopa County (one of the defendants) claimed in court papers filed last month.
"In reality," wrote deputy county attorney Maria Brandon, "[Blake] sought medication for treatment for insomnia, never displayed any psychotic symptoms, and never stated any suicidal or homicidal ideas or intent."
"I am afraid of my own thoughts. Help me to pray about these things that bother me."
-- undated entry from Kelly Blake's diary
The day before Kelly Blake killed two of her children was unremarkable. Her son Johnny recalls no fights or bickering, nor ominous comments from his mother.
It was a school day for most Valley youngsters, but not for the home-schooled Faustos. Johnny would tell police that the family rode their bicycles on North Mountain before going to work at the condo complex where Blake and the kids worked part-time.
They went home after work, ate dinner, and went to bed without incident.
Johnny awakened around 9 a.m. on Friday, March 20, 1998. It was a chilly Phoenix morning.
Less than two hours had passed since the fire started. Phoenix police detective Dave Swine sat with Johnny Fausto at Maricopa Medical Center, and began an extraordinary interview.
The boy seemed eerily focused, first describing his home life.
"She wanted to be a Christian, but we didn't want to," Johnny said. "'Cause they make you dress a certain way that they want you to dress, and talk a certain way they want you to talk."
Swine asked him if his mother had been seeing a doctor.
"She has, about a week ago."
"Okay. Was it for an illness?"
"No. It was a nervous breakdown."
"Do you know where that doctor was that she saw?"
"It was at Southwest Behavioral Clinic. I saw it on the caller ID.... She didn't even tell us she was going. She said, 'Oh, I'll be back in a couple minutes,' and she was gone for, like, four hours."
"Did you notice if she's taking any kind of medication?"
"Yeah, they gave her medication."
"Do you know what it was?"
"Something to help her sleep.... And she said that wasn't working. That was making her dizzy. So she went to the health-food store and got something."
Swine asked about that morning. Johnny said his mom first had borrowed $5 from him to buy cereal and milk. Later that morning, his grandmother left for a doctor's appointment.
Just after 11 a.m., Johnny continued, his mother asked him for another $20:
"I said, 'For what?' She said, 'Oh, nothing, but can I just borrow $20?' I said no. And she said, 'I'll give you $10 interest.' So I said all right.... Then I said, 'Where you gonna go?' 'Oh, I'm just gonna run out.' She went up and got gas."
"She went up and got gasoline?"
"Yeah. But I didn't know that [yet].... Then, she came home [five minutes later]. She said, 'Come on, John, I gotta talk to you.' My brother and sister were outside playing basketball.... She said, 'I know I haven't been a good parent. I know that everything I do is wrong,' and then she said, 'Oh, now, let's play a little game.'"
Johnny described how Blake had asked him and his siblings to don handkerchiefs as blindfolds.
"She said, 'I'll lead you.' Then she put us in the storage room. And then she said, 'Wait here, but keep those handkerchiefs on.' She said to our dog, Brownie, 'Oh, you wanna go too?' But he didn't want to go. He ran out in the front. And when she opened the [car] door to get the gas, he must have jumped into the car.
(Firefighters later found Brownie unharmed in the car.)
"Then she came in, the blindfolds are still on. And she started pouring the gas ..."
Johnny made a whooshing sound to replicate the moment.
"I went out the door trying to call the neighbors, tell them to call the police. And then I went and got the hose, and I was trying to squirt them down ..."
The detective backed off, as Johnny told how he earned money by cutting lawns and taking care of a neighbor's dog. He said he'd buy cockatiels with his proceeds, raising the birds for sale in an aviary he'd built himself.
Johnny then recalled more about Kelly Blake's last words to him before leading him and his siblings into the shed:
"'I've just been trying to do things for you guys, the ones I love the most, and all I wanted was for you guys to grow up and love God.... But it seems like everything I do, it's wrong, it always turns out wrong.' It seemed weird, and then she said, 'Okay, let's play a game now.'"
In trying to save Ray and Venessa, Johnny said, he'd briefly used the water hose, then ripped out the vent from the lower half of the shed door.
"At first, I didn't see where they were," Johnny said. "There was so much flame. Once I saw him [Ray], at first I thought he was dead, but then he started moving. So then I pulled him through the vent. And then he said, 'Go on, get out of here.' He said, 'Help me, why did she do that?'"
"Did you see Venessa?"
"Yeah. She was too far for me to reach. She was just laying there. She wasn't moving."
Johnny said he'd seen his mother in the backyard, "just walking around on fire. Then when the police came, I saw her laying on the ground."
The detective zeroed in on Blake's possible motivation.
"Do you believe your mom tried to kill you?"
"Yeah, I know she did."
"Do you know why your mom tried to kill you?"
"I just, I don't know. She probably just had -- crazy or something. I don't know."
Detective Swine then delivered heartbreaking news:
"Your mom and your brother are really, really, really bad, okay. And I mean really, really bad burned."
"Yeah. I saw my brother. All his clothes are burned, and everything."
"Okay. Your sister did not live, okay.... And you're right, you're probably absolutely right that your mom just kind of went crazy, okay, because normally a mother would not do this to her children, or herself."
"Will my mom go to jail if she lives?"
"Or would she go to the madhouse?"
Blake's criminal attorney, assistant public defender Vikki Liles, may echo the police officer's sentiments at trial. Swine told the boy:
"We would probably find out that your mom's thought process is not right -- the nervous breakdown that you talked about -- that generally causes people to do all kinds of weird stuff. And in the law, in order to go to jail, you have to know that you're doing something wrong, and you have to intend to do it while you do it knowingly."
"She'd do it [knowingly]," Johnny countered, "if she could go to the gas station and get the gas."
"Okay, true, okay," the detective said, taken aback by the youngster's powers of deduction. "But the point of it is, if she's got a lot of other stuff going on in her head -- this is something that, nobody does this. It's not something that somebody just does, okay. So, no, I don't believe that your mom would go to jail."
"No," Johnny said. "I want her to go to jail."
"Change Kelly Change Kelly Change Kelly Change Kelly. Jesus, change my heart, please change my heart and mind, Jesus. I don't know how to change."
-- from Kelly Blake's diary, February 1998
Johnny Fausto and his grandmother moved back into the home on Clarendon several weeks after the fire. They returned after volunteers from Habitat for Humanity rebuilt it, razing the shed in the process.
The volunteers included several firefighters who had been there on March 20, 1998, including Autry Cheatham.
"The healing process on something like this is impossible to measure," he says. "I've spoken to my God about it, and I have to make my peace with it. It's a people issue, and I'm here to help people when I can."
But no one seems to know what to do with Johnny, a decent, bright kid who refuses to get counseling, never cries for his lost family, and is floundering in high school.
"Maybe he thinks that people will think he's crazy if he does what his mother did -- seek help from the professionals," says his grandfather and court-appointed conservator, Reed Juett.
"He loves his mother, but he doesn't want to see [her] at the moment, and hasn't in months, since she started back into her mother role -- 'Your hair is too long,' and so on. He never says anything about his brother and sister, though I know they're in his thoughts and his heart."
Juett is ambivalent about what should happen to his stepdaughter.
"She was wrong to do what she did," he says, "and I don't think she should be allowed to walk the streets. But there are mitigating circumstances that may have forced her into that situation. I don't think she would have done it -- killed my grandkids -- if she'd gotten the help she tried to get.... Those kids were her whole life. She was sick. But she should be punished in some way, even though she's already been punished as much as a person can be punished. The whole thing is just so complex."
Southwest Behavioral "discharged" Kelly Blake from its caseload on November 19, 1998. Eight months had passed since the fatal fire, and nine months since anyone from the clinic had seen her, except for perhaps on the evening news.
Under a section in Blake's paperwork titled "Goals Achieved," a therapist at Southwest Behavioral noted "CRISIS STABILIZATION."
Under "Goals Not Achieved," she wrote "NONE."
Southwest Behavioral's reason for discharging Blake -- "NEEDS ADDITIONAL OR ALTERNATIVE SERVICES."
The therapist then rendered an opinion about Blake's prognosis for recovering her mental faculties.
"POOR," she concluded.
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org