"Danger to Children"

"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 Times last 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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin