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Mother held in fire that killed her children

Nov. 21, 2008 - 10:01PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 21, 2008 - 10:01PM  |  
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GAINESVILLE, Ga. — A federal judge Friday denied bond for an Army wife who could face the death penalty if convicted on charges of setting a fire that was intended to kill her husband but instead killed her two young children at a Fort Campbell, Ky., apartment.

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GAINESVILLE, Ga. — A federal judge Friday denied bond for an Army wife who could face the death penalty if convicted on charges of setting a fire that was intended to kill her husband but instead killed her two young children at a Fort Campbell, Ky., apartment.

Billi Jo Smallwood, 35, was denied bond at a hearing in northwest Georgia, where she has family.

A prosecutor said Smallwood intended to kill her husband because he had a $400,000 life insurance policy.

"She set fire to her own home in hopes of killing her husband and wound up killing her kids," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Gabay-Smith said at the hearing.

The May 2007 fire at the base on the Tennessee-Kentucky border killed 9-year-old Sam Fagan, and 2-year-old Rebekah Smallwood. Smallwood's husband, Army Spc. Wayne Smallwood, crawled out of a second-level window and suffered a leg injury when he jumped. Their toddler daughter, Nevaeh, was not injured.

U.S. Magistrate Susan Cole said she denied bond mostly because Smallwood was a flight risk. The indictment against her was released Tuesday.

"At this point the evidence appears strong against Mrs. Smallwood," the judge said. "It's a heinous crime that's alleged."

Smallwood's family members, including her husband who was accompanied by friends in Army fatigues, stood and identified themselves to the judge in support of her release on bond. Her mother testified that she would get her to trial and her husband stood and said, "My name is Wayne Smallwood, and I am here to support my wife."

Matthew Cummings, special agent with U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Division, testified that investigators determined that gasoline was poured on the floor in the ground-level living room of their apartment. He said Billi Jo Smallwood suffered second- and third-degree burns in the fire, but that her burns were consistent with someone who set a fire. He said doors in the home had been locked from the inside and smoke detectors had been removed.

Cummings said the husband had a $400,000 life insurance policy and the investigation showed their relationship was "rocky." He said the investigation showed she was "concerned with his abuse of alcohol and drugs." The agent testified she told him they had just returned from a trip to Georgia when the fire was set and they had just $17. Cummings said she was "aggravated" that her husband had gone out earlier in the evening to a VFW club bar.

Cummings said Billi Jo Smallwood also said she had received a telephone threat against her husband earlier in the evening of the fire but investigators reviewed records and there was no such call made to their apartment. He said firefighters had to break down doors and no windows were broken until after the fire was started.

The accused woman's mother testified that her daughter has been living in Brunswick recently and is active in the church. A family friend, Debbie Jenkins of Cleveland, Ga., testified that Billi Jo Smallwood is a "loving person." Wayne Smallwood and other family members declined comment outside the courtroom but told the accused woman, "We love you, Billi," as she was led away in shackles, sobbing.

Gabay-Smith said records show Wayne Smallwood was just released from a county jail where he was in custody on a domestic abuse complaint by his wife.

Cummings will likely be transferred to Kentucky next week for a Dec. 10 arraignment. She faces a charge of damage by fire to property owned by the federal government and a second charge of damage by fire to property owned by the federal government that resulted in deaths.

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