Fatal blaze that injured 5 FFs leads to arson, manslaughter charges

Police say a woman who was angry at her boyfriend lit the fire that killed two occupants and injured several responding firefighters

Steven Henshaw
Reading Eagle, Pa.

READING, Pa. — A 23-year-old Reading woman, angry that her boyfriend left her alone in their room to spend time with his family, lit a woven wall decoration with a cigarette lighter, sparking a blaze that killed two occupants of a city row house, police allege in a criminal complaint.

Investigators charged Natalie Muniz on May 5 with involuntary manslaughter and arson following an investigation with the city fire marshal’s office into the March 4 blaze at the row house at 766 Schuylkill Ave. occupied by Muniz and seven others.

Muniz was arraigned before District Judge Alvin Robinson and remains free to await a July hearing, according to court records.

Firefighters found the remains of John L. Vannatter, 39, a resident of the home, and Carlos F. Molina-Almendares, 57, a guest. Some of the residents escaped through a second-floor window.

Five firefighters suffered various injuries while trying to control the blaze, which gutted the home.

According to the probable cause affidavit:

Police and firefighters responded to the fire in the house in the middle of the row about 9 p.m.

While firefighters were still battling the fire, police found several family members, including Muniz, nearby. They were taken to City Hall for interviews in the investigations division.

Muniz told investigators that she shared the first-floor front bedroom with her boyfriend, Luis Gonzalez. She said they had been arguing throughout the day and she had been arguing with other household members.

Muniz said she was angry because Gonzalez was spending time with his family on the second floor and had left her alone in their bedroom. She said she felt stressed and lit a cigarette to calm herself.

An investigator asked her if she lit anything else. She said she ignited a dreamcatcher — a small hoop containing a horsehair mesh or yarn and decorated with feathers and beads that in Native American cultures is said to give its owner good dreams — that was hanging on the bedroom wall.

She said it wasn't the first time she had damaged household items when she became upset.

Muniz said she tried to put out the fire by blowing on it, then put the dreamcatcher on the corner of her bare mattress and left the room.

Moments later, she saw flames and smoke coming from the bedroom.

She and others on the first floor left the residence as Vannatter tried unsuccessfully to put out the fire.

Fire Marshal Jeremy Searfoss said it appeared there was a delay in calling 9-1-1 while someone in the home tried to put out the fire. That resulted in firefighters meeting a more advanced fire than they would have encountered if authorities had been notified when the fire was discovered.

Vannatter was hailed as a hero by police several days after the fire when it was learned he died while helping those stranded on the second floor escape through a second-floor window.

Autopsies performed by Dr. Neil A. Hoffman, a forensic pathologist, in Reading Hospital showed Vannatter and Molina-Almendares died of thermal burns and smoke inhalation.

Based on Hoffman's findings, the Berks County coroner's office ruled the deaths as homicides.

Molina-Almendares had been homeless but had been invited into the home by one of the residents.


©2020 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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