People felt so sorry for Melinda Sayers that they flooded her with prayers, kind words and more than $32,000 in donations.
Sayers and her husband were struggling with financial problems, and their baby girl was fighting for her life in the hospital. Then the South Hill home the family rented burned in a fire days before the Sayerses were to bring their daughter home.
It was all too much, and the public started pitching in.
What they didn’t know, authorities allege, is that Sayers, 37, lost her nursing license for falsifying paperwork and started the fire at her home because she felt too stressed to care for the little girl.
Pierce County sheriff’s detectives arrested Sayers on Thursday after she allegedly admitted starting the April 1 blaze by lighting a candle and opening an oxygen tank.
The tank was among the medical supplies recently set up in the family’s home to care for 11-month-old Abigail when she was released from the hospital. The child, who was born prematurely and had brain damage, died the day after the fire.
Sayers, who appeared in court Friday in an anti-suicide smock, pleaded not guilty to first-degree arson and falsifying an insurance claim.
Her attorney, Don Winskill, told the court Sayers was under a tremendous amount of stress before the fire and said she’d received several threats since. He asked that Sayers be released on her own recognizance.
Superior Court Commissioner Meagan Foley refused, ordering Sayers jailed in lieu of $200,000 because the arson was an “unacceptable response to stress.”
Prosecutors said they are considering charges of theft by deception for the thousands of dollars given to the family after the fire left their home unlivable.
The woman who started the donation site, Wanda O’Dell, said she was horrified to hear of Sayers’ arrest and would try to refund money to those who wanted their donations back. Some, however, asked that Sayers’ husband, Chris, and their 2-year-old son, Eli, keep the money. Investigators said Chris Sayers played no role in the arson.
“This man lost a child, a wife, all his belongings and is now facing raising a son on his own without anything,” Erica Borneman wrote on the donation Web page. “Keep my money, he still needs it. May peace find him in this mess.”
Chris Sayers left home about 15 minutes before the fire broke out April 1. When firefighters arrived at the house in the 2500 block of 107th Avenue Court East, the flames had gone out and only a cardboard box in the living room was still smoldering.
Firefighters nicknamed Sayers “Superwoman” after she told them she’d dropped her son out of a bedroom window seconds before a loud explosion rocked their home.
She told her story repeatedly to the media, chronicling how she saved her son and herself.
The Sayerses’ insurance company gave them $5,000 and provided them with temporary housing, according to charging papers.
Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer has said investigators became suspicious because Sayers’ story about escaping the fire didn’t add up and because she failed to tell them about losing her nursing license in 2012 for falsifying documents.
Fire investigators noted that Sayers said she walked past the origin of the fire twice and ignored the smoke alarm because it was always going off.
Law enforcement investigators are seeking more information about the death of Abigail, Troyer said. The Sheriff’s Department is sharing information about Sayers with Seattle police, who will help in the inquiry.
“It wouldn’t be prudent for us not to take a look at that,” Troyer said.
The state Department of Health suspended Sayers’ nursing license in 2012 after charging her with unprofessional conduct. Documents indicate she falsified an application for her husband with the Lance Armstrong Foundation Fertile Hope Program and forged prescriptions for herself for fertility and anxiety medications.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653