During the 52 minutes that Dalawna Berran-Lett left her 3-year-old twins home alone while she went searching for her teenaged daughter, the little boys managed to ignite the only working burner on their grease-encrusted stove and start a fire from which they could not escape, Allegheny County's top prosecutor said Friday.
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said he approved involuntary manslaughter and other charges against Ms. Berran-Lett, who will be arrested sometime after the boys are buried today. The funeral service for the twins will be held today at 10 a.m. at the Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Homewood.
"They never stood a chance," he said of Ky'heir and Dy'heir Arthur.
Whatever the boys stood on to access the stove in the North Braddock home on Rebecca Avenue near 13th Street was incinerated in the Jan. 4 blaze, Mr. Zappala said.
The grease caught fire over a 15-minute period and the blaze spread and engulfed the wood-frame and Insulbrick house in another 15 minutes, Mr. Zappala said.
The boys were found on different floors. An autopsy showed they died from smoke inhalation and burns.
It was not the first time that the boys had turned on the stove, he said. Relatives told investigators that they had seen the twins play with the stove in the past and prepare their own food. One time, investigators were told, the boys took ribs from the freezer and cooked them on the stove top causing a lot of smoke, Mr. Zappala said.
On the day of the fire, Ms. Berran-Lett told investigators her theory that a pan of grease was sitting on the stove that ignited when the boys tried to cook chicken that was in the refrigerator.
"They are my monkey-see-monkey-do boys," she told a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter. She called her boys a couple of "busybodies."
Mr. Zappala said Ms. Berran-Lett left her house that afternoon to find her 15-year-old daughter, Mariah, who she believed stole a baggie of marijuana from her purse. She said she did not want to bring the boys outside with her to the bus stop to wait for Mariah because "it was too cold outside."
By the time Ms. Berran-Lett got home, her rental house was in flames and surrounded by firefighters. Her daughter was standing outside.
Mr. Zappala said that the stove had been issued a red tag by the gas company indicating that some sort of malfunction needed to be fixed. But he said the utility company and the building's maintenance man said the problem was not so dangerous that the stove should have been shut off.
Court records show that Ms. Berran-Lett was charged by Pittsburgh police in 2005 with endangering the welfare of children. The charge was dismissed.
Ms. Berran-Lett could not be reached for comment on her pending arrest, but a friend, Deanna Robinson, said Ms. Berran-Lett was shocked and devastated after she learned Friday evening that she would be charged. Ms. Berran-Lett, she said, does not have legal representation because she didn't know she would need it, and has been overwhelmed by the loss of her children. Her 15-year-old daughter ran away on Wednesday as well, adding to her grief and worry, Mrs. Robinson said.
"Justice for the children and salvation for her is very important at this point," said Mrs. Robinson, whose husband, Odell, is handling the boys' funeral arrangements at his funeral home on the North Side. "I really think she has gone through a tremendous amount of stress, post-traumatic stress, regret and remorse, and on top of that, the loss of two babies."
Ms. Berran-Lett has been extremely forthcoming and cooperative with authorities since the fire, but she also is scared, lonely, isolated and grieving, Mrs. Robinson said. She and her husband encouraged Ms. Berran-Lett not to miss her sons' funeral, even though she will be arrested.
"I told her, 'We will cross that bridge with you when it comes,' " Mrs. Robinson said. "She's a beautiful human being and none of us is invincible, none of us is flawless."