ELK CITY — Visiting Linda Poindexter’s house is like walking into a shrine to her daughter and two grandchildren.
Photos of her daughter, Teresa Burleson, and her children, Chelsi and Schyler, hang in nearly every room of the house. In one room, walls are covered from floor to ceiling with pictures of every member of her family. But seeing the smiling faces of Burleson, Chelsi and Schyler is difficult.
“It’s always painful,” she said. “But I can’t put them away.”
Burleson and her two children died in a house fire in Oklahoma City shortly before 6 a.m. on Mother’s Day 1998. When firefighters arrived, the structure was engulfed in heavy flames and thick smoke. Firefighters found the three bodies in the living room of the home at 4709 S Santa Fe Ave. Burleson was 28, Chelsi was 9, and Shyler was 7.
Fire investigators initially said they were “98 percent sure” the fire wasn’t deliberately set. Five years later, fire investigators reached the conclusion that arson was to blame, saying there was no other plausible explanation. Oklahoma City police didn’t take over the investigation until last year.
Capt. Dexter Nelson, a spokesman for the Oklahoma City Police Department, said police didn’t investigate fire deaths at the time of Burleson’s death unless fire investigators found evidence of a homicide — bullet wounds in the body, for example. While police were aware of the fire at the time, fire officials handled the investigation.
The biggest hurdle in the investigation has been that investigators haven’t been able to pinpoint a cause for the fire. Fire investigators looked into all possible accidental causes, but none appeared plausible.
When the case came to the police last year, it went immediately to the department’s cold case unit, Nelson said. Cold case investigators have gone over the investigation, talking to witnesses whom fire investigators interviewed at the time. None of those witnesses provided any information other than what they told fire investigators in 1998, Nelson said.
Investigators have a person of interest in the case, he said, but that person has an alibi. Without any new information or leads, investigators have to wait for someone to step forward or for a new kind of technology to create new opportunities.
“It’s extremely frustrating for us, so I know how frustrating it must be for the family,” Nelson said.
A cold case investigation expert and retired New York police detective said solving a case like this one could be “a herculean task.”
Joseph Giacalone is an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, and the author of the textbook “Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators.”
Giacalone said the fact that more than a decade passed before police took over the investigation means investigators don’t have access to the same evidence they would have for a more recent homicide. After bodies have been buried and witnesses have scattered, piecing the crime together can be difficult.
“This is every cold case investigator’s worst nightmare,” he said. “You don’t get a second chance to do it right.”
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