Woman pleads guilty in 2018 fire that killed son
Vanessa Jenkins, the mother of 3-year-old Lane E. Cullen, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, a Class 5 felony, Tuesday in a case stemming from the 2018 Christmas Eve house fire that killed her son.
Law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office alleged that Jenkins negligently and unreasonably placed the child in a situation that resulted in his death, according to a press release from the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
“Although the criminal process cannot bring Lane back to us, this plea offers a measure of justice for Lane and his family,” said Assistant District Attorney Matthew Tjosvold.
Detective Norm Rimmer of the Craig Police Department lead the investigation.
“Norm Rimmer did a great job for Lane in this case, and we thank him” said Tjosvold. Investigators from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Craig Fire Rescue also assisted in the case.
On April 3, Jenkins was arrested and charged with the criminally negligent death of Cullen.
In a 13-page redacted arrest warrant affidavit obtained by the Craig Press in late March, police detailed the circumstances surrounding the fire, in which Jenkins found herself waking up on the couch to her home ablaze and her child screaming as the room he was in was engulfed in flames, eventually taking his life.
According to that affidavit, officers with the Craig Police Department responded to the 1900 block of Woodland Avenue about 10:30 a.m. Christmas Eve in 2018 to find smoke and flames coming from the home and a woman, later identified as Jenkins, yelling to officers that her child was still inside the house.
At least three Craig officers were first on the scene and tried to enter the home, without success.
Police then confirmed the boy was still inside the burning home and soon tried again to enter the home from the front.
However, a fully engulfed hallway and bedroom led to flames engulfing the living room, forcing the officer out of the house.
At that point, officers decided further rescue attempts were too dangerous before Craig Fire/Rescue arrived on scene.
About 10:34 a.m. that day, Craig Fire/Rescue began its fire control and rescue efforts, making their way to the bedroom where the child was reportedly last seen. The affidavit stated that fire crews used water to extinguish the fire and a chainsaw to open a large hole into the room.
Once firefighters made the opening in the wall, they discovered the child’s body between an interior wall and what they believed to be a mattress, the affidavit reads.
Through a fire investigation, investigators believed the fire originated in the child’s bedroom.
As investigation crews sifted through the bedroom, police noticed no signs of an electrical fire, but found “a melted, but intact, BIC style lighter,” which the affidavit reads was found near the child’s body, which was directly below where the child was found by the rescue team.
Police said an autopsy later showed high concentrations of carbon monoxide in the boy’s blood, suggesting he was alive when the fire started. His death was originally ruled as accidental.
Despite the accidental death ruling, police pursued Jenkins in the case, ultimately leading to her arrest and her subsequent guilty plea Nov. 26.
In the moments and days following the fire, the affidavit reads, police interviewed Jenkins and several of her family members, as well as witnesses who told police they were aware Jenkins’ boy had learned how to play with lighters whose safety devices had been removed.
The affidavit states that, on the day of the fire, Jenkins told police she was asleep on the couch in the living room and was woken up by her son screaming.
But in a second interview at the Public Safety Center a few days later, Jenkins told police she was awake, sitting on the couch, and ran into the smoke-filled room when she heard “two suffocating screams,” according to the affidavit, which also details other conflicting accounts Jenkins allegedly gave to friends and family concerning the events of that night, according to prior Craig Press reporting.
In that instance, Jenkins said she began crawling on her hands and chest in an attempt to get underneath the smoke and flames and reach her son. She offered proof of her injuries to police, though she refused transportation to the hospital.
Friends and investigators said they didn’t see any visible burns on Jenkins in the days and weeks after the fire.
Police also said Jenkins admitted her son had used a lighter to set fire to a bed sheet on at least one occasion. The affidavit stated the child also had possibly set a mattress on fire a few weeks before the fire that claimed his life.
Due to her guilty plea, Jenkins avoids a trial and will now have a sentencing hearing in the Moffat County District Court on Feb. 10 at 1 p.m.
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Travis Moore hopes that he has imparted in his students a sense of environmental stewardship, critical thinking and compassion; it’s the whole person — not just the academic student — that he aims to teach.