Was Freemanville house fire arson?
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
A California woman, shortly after finally securing a judicial ruling that she was the rightful owner of a Freemanville Drive home, was notified on Christmas Day that she now owns nothing more than an acre of land on which there is a pile of ashes and charred rubble.
The 1,443-square-foot brick and wood home that once stood there was destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve, and Sondra Edwards, whose mother was recently awarded all ownership rights to the property, has no doubts that the fire was intentionally set.
Mrs. Edwards said she’s not only sure that the fire was set, but even more convinced that she knows who was responsible for setting it or having it set.
“The sheriff did not say it was arson, but there was no electricity on in the house, and on Monday, December 17, someone dumped a lot of broken drawers and wood in the front yard,” she said during a series of interviews with Atmore News.
Escambia County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Bill Blair said local authorities had contacted the office of State Fire Marshal Scott Pilgreen and were told that the state office would conduct a probe into the destructive blaze.
The local woman feels that her mother, Katie Holbert, was twice a victim — once of a forged deed that threatened her ownership in the property and once of an arsonist with an axe to grind.
According to court documents and Mrs. Edwards, her grandmother, Lee Bess Dailey who died in 1976, had a last will and testament drawn up that included a survivorship clause. According to the will, Lee Bess Dailey’s husband, Ester Dailey, would be allowed to live in the house until he died, then the house and lot would be “turned over to her daughter (Katie Holbert) and her heirs forever.” Ester Dailey died in September of 2017.
The will stipulated that if Ester Dailey remarried and his wife survived him, the widow would have to vacate the property upon his death. Dailey did remarry, and in 1984 he and his wife Velma filed a quit claim deed stating that Mrs. Holbert had sold the property to them for $10.
The quit claim deed was notarized by a person who is now deceased — later determined to be a siding salesman — and was witnessed by Velma Dailey.
When Mrs. Holbert was made aware in 1994 of the deed’s existence, she contacted Bert Rice, now a circuit court judge but then practicing law in Atmore. According to a deposition given by Rice, Ester Dailey admitted to him on April 7, 1993, that the quit claim deed was a fraud and that he (Dailey) would have the document corrected.
“Fast forward to 2014,” Mrs. Edwards said. “We found the fraudulent deed was still in force.”
Mrs. Edwards said her mother hired a Bay Minette attorney to help her launch a legal challenge to the deed, but he was unable to get the case onto an Escambia County Circuit Court docket. Finally, with Mrs. Holbert acting as her own attorney, the case was heard in October 2018. Atmore attorney Charles Godwin represented Velma Dailey.
Finally, a ruling
After testimony by several parties, as well as depositions from Rice and others, retired Circuit Judge P.B. McLauchlin, who formerly presided over trials in Geneva and Dale counties, ruled on November 9, 2018 that the quit claim deed was fraudulent.
The judge, who heard the case without a jury, ordered that Velma Dailey — who according to the ruling, “purportedly was a witness to the quit claim deed even though she said she knew nothing about it” — and her heirs should vacate the property within the specific time frame allowed by Alabama law.
About two weeks later, Mrs. Edwards said, she and her husband went to the property to see if the judge’s order was being carried out.
“I was home during the Thanksgiving holiday, (and) that is when I entered the property and saw that Velma Dailey did not follow the judge’s orders and vacate the property immediately,” she said. “That is the reason why we had my husband post a notice to vacate. When we entered the property on November 20, the house was full of clothes and other items, so we posted the notice on December 1, giving Velma Dailey 30 days to remove her items. On December 24, the house was burned down.”
Mrs. Edwards said her mother, now 81, traveled to Alabama several times within the last four years for scheduled hearings, only to find on several occasions that the case had been postponed without notice.
“I think it really was the principle of the matter,” Mrs. Edwards said of her mother’s eagerness to get the issue into a courtroom. Mrs. Edwards further alleged, “Ester and Velma stole the property from her and her children and then allowed it to become rundown and a neighborhood eyesore.”
She added that her mother is more than willing to pay for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible.
“The family is offering a reward — we have not (yet) determined an amount,” Mrs. Edwards said. “The reward will be paid for information that leads to the conviction of the arsonist. My mother is offering the reward because someone knows who burned the house down.
“Freemanville is a small town; someone knows who did this or who ordered the house to be burned. We would like anyone who knows anything about who set the house on fire, to come forward.”
Any person having such information is urged to call the State of Alabama Arson/Fraud Tip Hotline (1-800-654-0775) or the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (251-809-0741).
Attempts to reach Velma Dailey for comment were unsuccessful.