A Mother's Torch

'Insane' mom sentenced in 1998 burning death of two kids

A few hours after Kelly Blake set fire to herself and her three kids on the morning of March 20, 1998, a Phoenix police detective spoke with her surviving child.

Detective Dave Swain had the unthinkable job of telling John Fausto Jr., then 14, that his 9-year-old sister was dead, and that his 12-year-old brother, Ray, was in bad shape. (Ray died later that night.) Swain also told John -- who'd miraculously escaped serious injury in the inferno -- that his mother also had been burned terribly.

Johnny explained to the detective how his mother had lured him and his siblings blindfolded into a shed at his grandmother's central Phoenix home, then poured gasoline on or near them. He'd escaped a likely death only because he'd been closest to the door.

The young man told the officer about Blake's recent "nervous breakdown," saying she'd tried to check herself in for treatment at a crisis center (Southwest Behavioral Health). The detective and the victim/son/brother then engaged in a dialogue that, in light of what happened at the 36-year-old woman's sentencing last week, proved prescient.

"Will my mom go to jail if she lives?" Johnny asked the cop.

"Yeah, probably."

"Or would she go to the madhouse?"

"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 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, okay, true," Swain agreed. "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 does, just does, okay. So, no, I don't believe that your mom would go to jail."

"No," Johnny explained. "I want her to go to jail."

More than three years passed. Last week, Johnny Fausto sat quietly with family members and friends in the second row of Judge Jonathan Schwartz's packed courtroom in downtown Phoenix. He listened intently as the judge pronounced Kelly Blake guilty-but-insane of seven felonies, including two counts of first-degree murder (of Venessa and Ray) and one count of attempted murder (of Johnny).

It wasn't clear what Johnny's thinking is these days about his mother. The pair didn't make eye contact during the hearing. Blake had been residing at a Phoenix nursing home since surviving third-degree burns over 90 percent of her body. She's undergone several skin-graft operations and other procedures for burns and other injuries sustained in the fire, and doctors say she'll have to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Blake didn't speak at her sentencing, during which Judge Schwartz ordered her transferred to the Arizona State Hospital for treatment. However, she did speak at length last year to New Times ("Danger to Children," Paul Rubin, March 23, 2000).

In that interview, Blake said she knew what she'd done is unforgivable. "It is what it is," she said. "It is what it is, and I did what I did. And I loved my kids, and I love my kids. I know that."

The story described how Blake had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness years before she started the fire. It told how, repeatedly, she'd sought help from Valley mental-health agencies (and failed to get it) in the weeks before she killed her children. A nurse at one of those agencies labeled Blake as a "danger to children."

But the safeguards in place to keep potentially dangerous individuals such as Blake from hurting themselves and those around them failed catastrophically.

Though Johnny Fausto showed little public emotion over his mother's sentencing, such was not the case on Valley talk-radio shows and around the courthouse. Some went so far as to say that, if they were in charge, they'd keep Blake from the array of medications she needs to minimize her constant physical pain, and from the drugs said to mitigate her serious mental illness.

But even veteran deputy county attorney Noel Levy conceded that each of three mental-health experts who recently evaluated Kelly Blake agreed she was insane when she led her kids into the little shed.

One of those experts says Blake's treatment plan has been going well. "It is my opinion to reasonable degree of medical probability, that Kelly Blake's mental illness has been stable for at least 18 months, and that . . . she is no longer a danger to herself or others within the meaning of [Arizona law]," Dr. Susan Baumann wrote in a report prepared for the court.

Under that law, authorities are not supposed to confine someone to a mental institution after the basis for confinement no longer exists. But Arizona law also bars a person found guilty-but-insane from asking the state's Psychiatric Security Review Board for release until 120 days after sentencing, or for 20 months after that, if the board turns down the first request.

Most of those in attendance at Blake's sentencing paid scant attention to a short exchange between Judge Schwartz and Phoenix attorney Art Gorman on that topic. Gorman is representing Blake and Johnny Fausto in a Superior Court civil suit against the mental-health agency that turned the troubled mother away before the fire.

Earlier, Gorman submitted papers alleging that the 120-day rule is unconstitutional because it "does not contain release provisions sensitive to, and triggered by a patient's recovery of sanity. Therefore, Ms. Blake cannot be committed to the state hospital and must be returned to the same nursing facility where she has lived for the past three years."

The judge denied Gorman's request. Actually, the odds that the board will release Blake from the state hospital after the 120-day period are slim, whatever her mental state. Of the 95 individuals under the board's jurisdiction as of June 22, only a handful have been released to the "community," and all but a few of those people under strict supervision.

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