A Del City father whose three young children died in a motor home fire was concerned about their mother's drug use leading up to the tragedy, a Department of Human Services worker testified Tuesday.
Angela Newman, a DHS child welfare specialist, said Christopher Lee Dunham told her he was worried Stephanie Dunham was using methamphetamine because she “had lost a lot of weight.”
The father, she added, admitted using methamphetamine and marijuana and said he had recently smoked marijuana after a brief period of sobriety.
Dunham, 26, is charged with three counts of felony child neglect or enabling child neglect and three drug-related charges in connection with the Jan. 4, 2011, fire that killed Christopher L. Dunham Jr., 4; Crystal Ann Dunham, 3; and Kailey Mae Dunham, 1.
The children, prosecutors allege, were locked inside the motor home when the fire broke out. Their mother, who admitted being in an adjacent house when the fire started, pleaded no contest to similar charges last week.
Prosecutors contend Dunham, who was at work when the fire started, was responsible for leaving the children alone with their mother, a known drug user with bipolar disorder.
Robert Sisson, Christopher Dunham's attorney, told the jury during opening statements in front of Oklahoma County District Court Judge Jerry D. Bass that the fire was an accident and not his client's fault.
The children's parents were hardworking, Sisson said.
“The evidence will show you that this is a space heater fire … a tragic accident,” he said.
A Del City fire inspector testified that when he arrived at the residence there was “heavy black smoke” rising 100 feet into the air.
Maj. Zion Williams said Stephanie Dunham was standing barefoot in the driveway leading to the motor home “just kind of staring at us.”
Williams said the mother gave several versions of what happened, including one in which she said she was inside the motor home when one of the kids knocked over a space heater that started the fire. She said she left to get some water, but when she came back the flames were too intense, the witness said.
“I think she gave us a total of three or four stories,” said Williams, who testified at length.
Stephanie Dunham, the inspector testified, eventually said the door was locked from the outside.
Williams said when Christopher Dunham, a tow-truck driver, returned home while firefighters were trying to extinguish the fire, he seemed more interested in placing the blame on his wife than the welfare of his children, who were trapped inside the burning vehicle.
“He said she wasn't a very good mother,” Williams told the jury. “She slaps and hits them.”
Christopher Dunham told Williams he would find pipes for smoking methamphetamine inside the motor home.
“He stated they both had used meth and marijuana,” the witness testified.
DHS worker testifies
Newman said she interviewed the couple two months before the fire. The DHS worker testified that Dunham and his wife told her the family lived in his mother's house, not in the motor home parked behind the house where the fire started.
Newman said DHS would not have approved of the children living in the motor home because there was no electricity and no running water.
“There were no basic necessities,” she said.
Newman said the children were “very dirty” and covered “from head to toe” in magic marker. But she testified on cross-examination that there was “no immediate safety threat” to the children.
Firefighters testified Tuesday in graphic detail about finding the bodies of the children inside the burned-out motor home. As they spoke, the defendant wiped away tears.
Del City firefighter Jerimiah Hoffstatter told jurors that when he broke out the windows of the burning motor home, he saw the body of a boy.
Prosecutors then showed the jury a photo of the boy's lifeless body on the floor of the motor home, causing the defendant and a juror to tear up.
John Sheehan, a Del City fire captain, took the stand next and testified that he saw the middle child lying next to her brother and the family dog near the door before he discovered the charred body of the youngest child on the front seat.
“It was an awful sight,” Sheehan said.
Dr. Marc Harrison, a forensic pathologist with the state medical examiner's office, testified the two
The trial resumes Wednesday.