A woman has been charged in a Redwood Falls apartment complex blaze that fire officials say was caused by a cigarette.
Darlene Williams, 57, now of Henning, Tennessee, faces 12 felony counts of negligent fire in Redwood County Court.
A criminal complaint says the fire caused over $440,000 in damages to twelve different victims, one suffering life-altering injuries.
According to the complaint, police responded just after 2 a.m. on December 18, 2018 to a fire alarm at a multi-unit apartment complex at 201 South Minnesota St.
Officers saw visible flames in a second-story apartment that was later identified as #206, Williams’ unit. Williams and other tenants were standing outside the building when police arrived, says the complaint.
Police attempted to access the second floor with fire extinguishers, but they were overtaken by smoke when the stairwell door was opened. Due to the dangerous amounts of smoke, officers instead began clearing residents from the first floor, says the complaint.
Before fire crews arrived on the scene, police heard a man yelling from the window of apartment 207. According to the complaint, the man was yelling that he couldn’t breathe, and indicated another man was also in the apartment.
The man told officers the smoke in the hallway was too thick to exit. The complaint says the man began to panic and yell, then punched out the window screen and began climbing out the window to jump. Police tried to guide the victim, but he lost his grip and fell, sustaining a serious leg injury, according to the complaint. He later reported permanent impairment of his left foot and difficulty walking as a result of the fall.
The other man in the apartment was then hanging out the window, but the Redwood Falls Fire Department arrived on time to rescue him with a ladder.
In an initial interview with police, Williams denied smoking cigarettes inside her apartment, seeing smoke or fire, or hearing fire alarms. Williams told investigators she’d fallen asleep on the couch watching a movie, but woke up to go to the bathroom, then heard voices and followed everyone outside.
But fire investigators determined that the fire started on the couch in Willaims’ living room, and say she would have perished in the fire if she was sleeping on the couch as she said.
Police say Williams also made unsolicited statements about sleepwalking and being at a neighboring apartment prior to the fire as they escorted her to a storage area to retrieve her property.
In a second interview with investigators, Williams said “something” told her to get up and get out of the apartment, so she went to a neighbor’s apartment where the two women discussed going to Jackpot Junction. She again denied seeing smoke or fire, but said she returned to the apartment to sleep. She also told investigators her bedroom light switch is known to spark.
The woman in the apartment where Williams’ claimed to have been told investigators she heard a beeping noise and smelled something burning the night of the fire as she was finishing up laundry. The neighbor said Williams came out of her apartment and said: “something’s wrong.” The woman said she looked in Williams’ apartment and smoke was pouring out of the bedroom and living room, so she called 911.
The witness said Williams is known to smoke cigarettes in her apartments and has been cautioned about the dangers.
Investigators say the fire was not intentionally set, but was caused by a carless cigarette discard on a couch cushion.
Damages to the apartment complex were estimated at $343,000. Tenants lost items such as groceries, electronics, furniture, and collectibles, bringing the total damage estimate to $443,717.
Williams has been summoned to appear in Redwood County Court.