Editor's Note: For Janis Jaquith's complete take on the fire and her investigation, read her Letter to the Editor from Wednesday morning.
OUTSIDE BOSTON, MA -- It sounds like something that could be turned into a Hollywood movie script, but for members of the Landers family, it couldn’t be more real. Still, almost half a century later the family hopes for the best ending possible.
Forty-three years after a devastating fire that killed six members of the Wilmington family, the Landers are seeking answers as they hope to prove the deadly blaze was intentionally set.
On September 26, 1969, the family’s Clark Street home caught fire, killing 37-year-old mother Nancy Landers along with five of her children. Davey, 13, Billy, 12, Kevin, 9, Lisa, 7, and K.C., 4, all perished in the fire that began at about 3 a.m. that morning.
The fire was ruled electrical in nature, a common classification during that time period. However, rumors flew around town in the weeks following the tragedy that a local man bragged to friends that he had started the fire. He was rumored to have been brought in for questioning at the time, but no charges resulted.
In another twist to the story, the family lived in a trailer on the property in the months after the fire. David Landers, the father of the family, said that one night he smelled gasoline outside the trailer and went outside to investigate.
When he arrived outside, David recalled finding several folded up newspapers that had been soaked in gasoline and set on fire. He stomped out the flames and called the police. But David told family members that the responding officer said to him, “a tragedy like this brings out the crazies,” and no investigation occurred.
Beginning about one year ago, Janis Jaquith, who married David and Nancy’s oldest child Harry, began an investigation of her own. She interviewed many of the involved parties, including firefighters who worked that day and neighbors.
“There are questions that we need to find the answers to,” said Jaquith, a 1970 Wilmington High School graduate. “At the time, the Wilmington Police Department failed the Landers family. There are dots that need to be connected.”
Janis is working with Fire Chief Ed Bradbury and recently retired Police Lt. Chris Neville to try and find more information on the case.
While both admitted that it is not likely any forensic evidence will surface, they said they hope bringing the case back to the forefront may trigger memories of Wilmington residents who may be able to provide a break in the investigation.
“There isn’t much as far as evidence goes, so it has been hard,” said Bradbury. “As far as I am concerned, this is still an open case. There is enough of what I have heard and the limited amount that I’ve seen that I have doubts if it was accidental.”
Neville said the man who is seen as a person of interest for telling friends he set the fire was arrested in the years after the fire for serious crimes in Florida and New York, including armed robbery.
In addition, Neville said the man, who no longer lives in town, has been seen at the Landers family gravesite and the property where the home burnt down on several occasions.
“There is something there to look at and at least have a conversation,” said Neville, who said the man declined to meet with police through his attorney when contacted recently. “There has never been a tragedy like this in the history of the town before this incident, or since then. Hopefully this will jog people’s memories and maybe it’ll prompt somebody and they’ll speak to the right person who does have information.”
Much of the evidence from the fire is no longer in archives, but among the items Jaquith uncovered is a set of 12 Polaroid photographs from the scene. She said it appears the photographs show two points of ignition, which would likely not be the case if the fire was accidental.
Anyone with information that may relate to the case should e-mail LandersTips@gmail.com, or call the Wilmington Police Department at 978-658-7988 x246.
Neville said there is no statute of limitations on murder, which would be the charge if a suspect is arrested in this case. So Janis Jaquith will continue working with Bradbury, Neville and others in town in hopes of finding answers for the Landers family.
“It’s very painful and would be easy to avoid,” said Jaquith. “On the other hand, there may be a gross injustice done to the Landers family, and you want to fix that. It’s as if you have a wound. It’s painful, but at some point, you have to take the bandage off and see what’s happening underneath it.”