A 5-year-old boy used a lighter to start a house fire in McKeesport on Sunday night that killed his 2-year-old cousin, Ayanna Brooks, according to the Allegheny County district attorney.
"This was not an accident," Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Thursday after visiting the charred remains of the rental home on Soles Street. "This is arson."
The smell of smoke still hung in the air as Mr. Zappala and county fire marshals sifted through the debris.
Outside on the sidewalk, a pile of pink teddy bears festooned with balloons rested against a pole, a tribute from sympathetic neighbors to Ayanna.
She died of smoke inhalation after the blaze trapped her in an upstairs bedroom.
The 5-year-old cousin and two other children, along with a woman, escaped.
Officials said two sisters lived in the house with their children. Ayanna's mother was in Florida with an infant, while her sister was home with the four children. The 5-year-old accused of setting the blaze is the son of Ayanna's aunt.
Mr. Zappala said the boy, who investigators believe has a history of setting fires, gave officials "sufficient information" for them to determine that he started the fire on purpose.
Children under 10 cannot be charged with homicide. But the boy is being evaluated by Children, Youth and Families to start court proceedings to possibly remove him from his family.
Mr. Zappala also leveled accusations against the landlord, Steel City Realty Investments, saying he could be in violation of a McKeesport ordinance requiring smoke detectors.
"I got a problem with him," he said of Kevin Kamenski, owner of Steel City Realty, which manages mostly Section 8 properties in the Mon Valley and elsewhere.
Neighbors and firefighters heard no alarms from smoke or carbon monoxide detectors. The scene on Sunday night was "eerily silent," Mr. Zappala said.
Mr. Kamenski could not be reached Thursday.
In 2008, he pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud as part of a mortgage fraud scheme.
He was sentenced to probation and ordered to forfeit $250,000.
County records show he has also been the defendant in dozens of civil actions over the years.
Mr. Zappala and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said 60 percent of the houses in McKeesport are owned by absentee landlords such as Mr. Kamenski, who lives in Butler County.
Many of those landlords, they said, allow their properties to fall into disrepair and have not installed or maintained smoke detectors.
"I think all too often you run into homes that might not be safe," Mr. Cherepko. said
Mr. Cherepko said his administration is working on a plan to make sure the ordinance is enforced through the occupancy permit process.
Torsten Ove: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1510. First Published March 27, 2014 1:34 PM