Saturday, October 30, 1999

Mother suspect in kids' deaths

'95 Halloween fire case revived

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BATAVIA — Four years after 9-year-old Matt and 11-year-old Amanda Gampfer died in a Halloween night fire in their mobile home, a grand jury will decide whether homicide charges will be filed against their mother.

        Daniel Breyer, Clermont County assistant prosecutor, said Friday he will begin presenting the case to a grand jury in two weeks.

        “There is going to be evidence presented to consider whether the children's deaths were the result of a homicide,” Mr. Breyer said.

        “I haven't felt this good in a long time. I'm relieved,” said the children's father, Michael Gampfer, 36, of Mount Vernon, Ky. Mr Gampfer has pressed the prosecutor's office almost weekly about the case since his youngsters perished.

        “From what I knew, I felt it would just be a matter of time,” Mr. Gampfer said. While he said he was not privy to any new information concerning the investigation, Mr. Gampfer added: “I said it then, and I'll say it now. That was no accidental fire.” He declined comment on any evidence in the case.

        It was a civil suit filed by the mother, Sherri Starr Cross, that helped propel the four-year criminal investigation to the grand jury, Mr. Breyer said.

        Ms. Starr Cross, the only other person at home the night of the fire, escaped unharmed. The Ohio fire marshal's office determined the Wayne Township blaze was deliberately set.

        Mr. Breyer said he will go to the grand jury because “we have a new perspective. We have a stack of civil depositions of experts, comments from (Ms. Starr Cross), just a whole lot of things that make us feel we need to let a grand jury make a decision,” Mr. Breyer said.

        Mr. Breyer said he expects

        the grand jury to decide if any charges are warranted within four to six weeks after the case is presented.

        Thomas Miller, who represents Ms. Starr Cross in the arson investigation, said: “The Clermont County prosecutor's office has been reviewing this matter for four years ... ”

        He acknowledged that on any anniversary the fire would be revisited, and the children remembered and missed.

        “We are sensitive to that,” Mr. Miller said. “However, there is no new evidence — nothing in civil trial that has been developed that is criminal. ... Sherri Starr had nothing to do with it other than trying to save her children. ... It was an accidental fire.”

        Mr. Miller said his investigation at the time — by an out-of-town fire investigator who worked on the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977 — concluded the fire began in the living room of the trailer in a kerosene heater.

        Goshen Township Fire Chief Virgil Murphy, lead investigator in the arson investigation, still believes the fire was arson and that there is enough evidence to secure an indictment.

        “I have heard some rumors,” the chief said Friday. “Justice is sometimes slow. But, I think it might get done.”

        The initial investigation suggested the fire started in the living room in a kerosene heater that could have been filled with gasoline. Lab tests and statements from neighbors have made Chief Murphy and state fire officials think otherwise.

        Janet Abaray, an attorney in the offices of Stanley M. Chesley, said she has filed the civil suit on behalf of the estate of the children. It is set for trial in February.

        The action asks for an unspecified amount of damages from the mobile-home manufacturer — Fairmont Homes of Indiana. The action contains a separate claim on behalf of Ms. Starr Cross, the mother, Ms. Abaray said.

        Ms. Abaray said the blackened trailer, which stood at 6664 Edenton-Pleasant Plain Road the night of the fire, is now being kept in storage as evidence.

        A candlelight memorial vigil is planned at 5:15 p.m. Monday at the children's grave at Graceland Memorial Gardens, 5989 Deerfield Road, Miami Township, Clermont County.


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