CATLETTSBURG After five hours of deliberation, a Boyd County jury found an Ashland man not guilty in a three-day arson-murder trial.
Christopher Childers, 36, was on trial accused of setting his mother, Ruby Childers, on fire inside her home in the 1200 block of Gallaher Drive in Ashland on Sept. 6, 2018. Childers was facing a charge of murder (and lesser counts of first- and second-degree manslaughter and reckless homicide) and first-degree arson.
Due to Childers' mental health diagnosis — testimony at trial revealed he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and methamphetamine abuse — jurors had the option of finding him guilty, not guilty or guilty but mentally ill.
Throughout the trial, the state and defense batted back and forth with two competing narratives — the state's version of events, as argued by Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Christina Smith, was Childers bound his mother in her living room chair and set her on fire. The defense, represented by Brian Hewlett, contended Ruby Childers may have caught herself on fire sneaking a cigarette while using a home oxygen tank.
On Thursday, jurors saw a battle of the experts between Ashland Fire Department investigators and a defense expert with years of arson investigation experience.
Both the Ashland Fire Department — whose investigation was headed up by Captain Richard Carr — and the defense witness, Stephen Claytor of SLC Fire Investigation, independently concluded the source of the fire was in the area of the chair where Ruby Childers' charred remains were found.
According to Carr, fire investigations require a ruling of accidental, natural, incendiary (set of fire) or indeterminate. Carr concluded the fire was intentionally set based on the fact that natural causes could be ruled out, Ruby's feet appeared to be bound with telephone cord and a purse strap and that there were no areas that could be sources of the fire in the area of the chair.
The oxygen machine was found at the other end of the room and was unplugged, according to Carr. He also said no tubing was recovered at the scene, either.
He also said Ruby didn't smoke — multiple family members contended she had quit smoking in 2015 on doctor's orders.
Claytor investigated the scene in November 2019 and concluded the fire was accidental in nature. Clearing away the scene, Claytor recovered the partially burned tube to the oxygen machine, discovering it ran to the area of the chair. Claytor said he believed the machine was plugged in at the time of the fire because the plug was silver and did not have soot on it — which indicated to him it all been plugged into the wall.
Claytor said he took the machine into his custody and tested it with an ohm meter, discovering it had resistance, which he said indicated the machine was turned on when it became unplugged.
Laboratory analysis showed no accelerants were detected at the scene, nor on clothes worn by Childers.
During closing statements, Smith argued that Childers showed an obsession with fire in the months leading up to the fatal blaze, pointing to Facebook memes entered into evidence. She also said Childers was angry with his mother due to being locked up on mental hygiene warrants multiple times in the year leading up to the fire.
She said Childers believed his mother was conspiring with his sister and a local police officer to steal his winnings from Publisher's Clearing House. As found in the testimony from multiple family members, Childers never won Publisher's Clearing House.
In the days leading up to the fire, Smith pointed out multiple family members overheard Chris threaten to burn the house down and kill his sister. She also pointed to his confession allegedly made at King's Daughter Medical Center.
Hewlett, in his closing statements, said the relationship between mother and son was difficult and rocky, but they ultimately loved one another. He said discoveries made by Claytor indicated that it was an oxygen tank fire, not arson.
He said Childers would not have been on trial had he not suffered from a mental illness. He said the only confession in the case was obtained by a cousin who works for the sheriff's department, out of earshot of other officers.
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