Residents streamed from a burning apartment building early Saturday morning as Kansas City, Kan., firefighters rushed inside.
Searching through smoky chaos, they found the limp body of a critically injured little girl and the lifeless body of a young woman.
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Tuesday, authorities blamed an arsonist for the deaths of both.
Prosecutors said that Curtis T. Horn, 37, killed his 34-year-old girlfriend, Brandi Johnson, before setting the fire that took 2-year-old Amiyah McClenton from her family weeks before her third birthday.
Johnson was Amiyah’s aunt.
Wyandotte County prosecutors charged Horn with two counts of first-degree murder. They also charged him with aggravated arson for allegedly setting the fire that forced numerous other residents to flee the apartment building at 1846 N. 76th Drive.
Fifteen of those residents were children, so prosecutors filed 15 felony counts of aggravated child endangerment. The children ranged from newborn to 14, according to court documents.
As horrible as the case was, it could have been much worse, said Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerry Gorman.
“We are fortunate it was limited to two deaths,” he said.
Kansas City, Kan., Fire Chief John Paul Jones called it a “significant fire” that posed a “very dangerous situation” for residents and firefighters.
Smoke detectors alerted some residents to the fire about 5:45 a.m. Some escaped on their own while firefighters helped others out and made a “very aggressive attack” of the fire and search of the building, Jones said.
Gorman declined to discuss specific facts surrounding the case, including a possible motive, how Johnson was killed or how the fire started.
“That will be done in the courtroom,” he said.
He did say that it was a domestic situation.
Horn and Johnson had known each other for five to six months, and it was “not uncommon” for Horn to be in the area, Gorman said.
Horn is charged with premeditated first-degree murder in Johnson’s death. He is charged with felony first-degree murder in connection with Amiyah’s death because she died during the commission of the felony crime of aggravated arson.
Gorman said that capital murder charges were considered, but Kansas law only allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty in a very limited set of circumstances, and this case didn’t fit those criteria. Conviction on the murder charges carries life sentences.
Horn was arrested Sunday with the cooperation of his family, Gorman said. His bond was set at $1 million, and he was in the Wyandotte County Jail.
Amiyah’s paternal great-aunt, Stephanie Hill, described the girl as a joyful, intelligent child who was always so pleasant that family members argued over who got to take care of her.
“There just wasn’t enough time for everybody to enjoy her,” Hill said. “She was the kind of child that when you meet her you love her.”
Even as a baby, Amiyah never seemed to be sad, and a sparkle of wisdom in her eye made her seem older than she was, Hill said.
“She was our world,” she said. “There’s not a person in our family who’s not touched by this.”
Johnson lived in Fort Scott, Kan., before her family moved to the Kansas City area.
She did not live at the apartment but was helping her sister out with child care.
Hill said that Amiyah’s parents no longer were together, but they cooperated in raising their daughter.
“He had so much love for her,” Hill said of her nephew, Amiyah’s father. “And her mother just loved that baby.”
She said family members are having a hard time trying to understand how someone could hurt a little child.
Her daughters, who were cousins to Amiyah, are devastated.
“Ever since this happened all they do is look at her picture and cry,” Hill said.