Firefighters were in collapse zone six minutes after it was ordered
The woman charged with arson, murder, assault and causing a catastrophe in a blaze that killed two Kansas City firefighters admitted her guilt to a fellow detainee soon after being arrested, according to testimony given Wednesday.
Thu Hong Nguyen told Misty Levron that she set a fire that killed people by using liquid in her nail salon, Levron testified Wednesday at Nguyen’s trial.
“She said she didn’t understand why it went wrong,” Levron said, recalling their conversation on Oct. 26, 2015, two weeks after the fire that killed John Mesh and Larry Leggio. “Nobody was supposed to die.”
Levron’s credibility was questioned by defense attorney Molly Hastings, who noted that Levron told her husband in a recorded jail phone call that she had a plan to use some information she had to get a charge against her out of Florida dropped. About two weeks after she told her story to investigators for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, she was informed that Florida had decided not to extradite her, and she was released from jail.
In testimony given earlier Wednesday, the senior special agent for the ATF who interviewed Levron, Ryan Zornes, said the agency made no requests or arrangements on Levron’s behalf in exchange for her story. Zornes headed the 138-member team that investigated the Oct. 12, 2015, three-alarm fire that destroyed a three-story commercial and residential building in the 2600 block of Independence Boulevard.
That investigation led to the charges against Nguyen, who shared in the profits of LN Nails & Spa, which the ATF determined was the origin of the fire.
Nguyen was arrested Oct. 26 after being interviewed for more than six hours by the ATF, during which time she made inconsistent statements and was untruthful, according to testimony.
While in custody she met Levron, who had been arrested that night for driving with a suspended license and for a warrant out of Florida. Levron said she befriended Nguyen, who she said seemed scared. After confessing to her, Levron said, Nguyen told her she would never tell investigators she set the fire, even if they they threatened to kill her.
A few days later Levron said she saw a report on television about Nguyen and began telling jail officials she had some information she wanted to share. Levron met with the ATF on Nov. 19. But by that time, Levron testified under subpoena, she had changed her mind about trying to use the information for her own benefit.
“I was not going to take that kind of trade on someone else’s blood,” she testified.
Within 24 hours of the fatal fire, in which Mesh and Leggio were killed and two other firefighters seriously injured in the collapse of a brick wall, an ATF national response team swooped onto the scene. Its members and local officials spent 10 days combing through the debris, collecting witness accounts and applying fire analysis techniques.
Key among the evidence were accounts from firefighters who reported flames and intense heat from both sides and from directly above the nail salon on the first floor.
Investigators determined the point of origin of the fire was the northeast corner of a storeroom at the back of the salon. They then turned to determining the cause. The only heat source in the storeroom was a ceiling light fixture, which was eliminated as a cause, Zornes testified.
“We determined that this fire was intentionally set,” Zornes testified, “and we classified it as incendiary.”
The storeroom contained eight gallons of flammable acetone and rubbing alcohol that Nguyen said she had purchased the day of the fire. Those substances are not known to spontaneously combust, Zornes said.
LN Nails was insured for $40,000. Although it was in Nguyen’s boyfriend’s name, she acknowledged to the ATF that she invested $10,000 of her own money to buy the business and kept the cash profits.
Cellphone records indicate the boyfriend was in the vicinity of the Argosy casino when the fire started. Video shows that Nguyen was the last to leave the business, just minutes before the fire was detected.
Nguyen formerly worked at a nail salon in Lee’s Summit that was in her son’s name and experienced a fire in 2013. She has since been charged with arson in that case.
In cross-examination of Zornes, Hastings noted that several tenants of the upper two floors of the building on Independence Boulevard had complained of experiencing electrical problems, including at least once instance of sparks and smoke coming from a wall outlet. She also questioned why some combustible objects in the storeroom, including plastic bottles and a plastic broom, had not been destroyed if that was the origin of the fire.
“How did that not go up (in flames)?” she asked.
Zornes said investigators believe the fire traveled up and spread through a lateral void between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of the second floor. Objects below the smoke bank were protected by cooler air that fed the fire, Zornes said.
The ATF’s report includes firefighter accounts that point to the nail salon as the seat of the fire. One said he saw flames coming from the lateral void above the salon into a vacant business immediately east of the salon. Two firefighters said they knocked a hole in the wall from the business immediately west of the salon and saw heavy fire within.
One of two other firefighters who had been in the apartment directly above the storeroom said the heat from the floor was the most intense he had ever experienced and burned him through his protective gear.
That led to an evacuation of the building by firefighters shortly before the collapse.