East Saint Louis, IL

Eleven Children Died In A House Fire When Their Parents Left Them Home Alone. Father Not Charged. Mom Gets Probation.

The Vivid Faces of the Vanished

House FireUnsplash- Lisay

On January 11, 1981, eleven children belonging to Virginia Williams died in a house fire in East St. Louis, after being left home alone. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch interviewed Virginia Williams and her surviving children in 2001.

Virginia Williams was born in 1952 to a poor family in Greenwood, Mississippi. Her mother, who had nine children, was a compulsive gambler and gave Virginia a way to a relative to raise.

"I've never forgiven her for that," Virginia told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

By the time she was 15 years old, Virginia had dropped out of high school and had her first child. In 1975 she moved to East St. Louis to be close to the father of some of her children, Arthur Jones. In 1977, she was charged with child neglect twice by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, according to St. Clair Juvenile Court records.

In August 1977, DCFS placed four of Virginia's children in foster care. The neighbors and the police department reported to DCFS that Virginia's children were constantly left alone, and they would wander the streets begging for food.

Authorities also discovered Virginia left her children under the supervision of a 14-year-old while she went on a trip to visit relatives in Mississippi. Authorities gave them back to her when she told them she was moving back to Mississippi. Virginia left Illinois and stayed in Mississippi briefly. She moved her children to Virginia and Iowa.

"I can't remember all the houses I've had," she told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

While they lived in Iowa, her oldest daughter, 11-year-old Elizabeth, ran away and was placed in a foster home. The state sent Elizabeth to live with her relatives in Mississippi.

Virginia moved back to St. Louis in 1980. By November of 1980, she was arrested for "knowingly allowing her children to wander on the public streets in East St. Louis . . . to beg for food and money," reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. DCFS allowed her to keep her children.

By the time she was 29 years old in 1981, Virginia had 12 children by five different men.

On January 10, 1981, Virginia Williams and Arthur Jones, the father of seven of her children, left the children home alone in the 1700 block of College Avenue alone. Around 2:00 pm, the couple drove to an illegal gambling house on St. Louis Avenue.

On January 11, 1981, around 2:00 am, Virginia's neighbors were awakened to the sounds of screams and the smell of smoke. When neighbors made it outside, Virginia Williams's two-story brick home was engulfed in flames. The neighbors could hear the children's footsteps running through the home, as the trapped children tried to escape.

None of them, none of the eleven children escaped the fire.

Firefighters found most of the children's bodies huddled together in an upstairs back bedroom. The investigators discovered that the fire was started by a space heater.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Virginia Williams admitted that Arthur tried to get her to leave the gambling house earlier that evening, but she told him she "had a good hand" and refused to leave.

Arthur reportedly left without Virginia. He drove home and saw the house on fire. Instead of calling the fire department or attempting to help his children, he drove back to the gambling house to get Virginia.

"He was crying, 'My babies, my babies, '" Virginia told The St. Louis Post Dispatch. "I said, 'Arthur, what are you talking about?'

"I said 'Are the kids out, are the kids out, Arthur?,'" reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

When Virginia and Arthur pulled back up to the house, they knew it was too late. Virginia blamed the tragedy on her gambling addiction.

"I gamble to help support these kids, " she said recently, reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "That's all I know."

Her children told investigators Virginia would use their public assistance checks to gamble and would lose the money frequently. The children said this caused them to be homeless multiple times.

The police arrested Virginia on suspicion of neglect. Two days before her children's funeral, they released her.

Three days after the deaths of her eleven children, they were laid to death in Sunset Gardens of Memory in Millstadt. Their tiny caskets were laid in order, from the youngest to the oldest.

"I've never seen so many people at a graveyard, " former East St. Louis Police Sgt. Gregory Cox told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

At the funeral, Virginia screamed out, "Lord, why did you have to take all of them," reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Child Burial CasketUnsplash

Four hours after the funeral, authorities arrested Virginia again and charged her with neglect.

"Beyond question, DCFS knew this woman, and they knew about these kids, " Representative Eyvetter Younge, D-East St. Louis, said, reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And they're the ones guilty of neglect. They knew that those kids were left alone."

When Virginia pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor neglect charge, she was already pregnant. A judge sentenced her to one year of probation.

Judge Kenneth Juen said the deaths of her children were a "far greater punishment than the court can ever impose," reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Virginia went on to have six more children: Kevin, Jeremy, Matthew, Audrey, and Chandra, in that order. According to court documents, Arthur Jones is the father of all six children.

Arthur Jones continued to gamble and spend time with Virginia, even though he is married and has more children with his wife. Authorities never charged him with abuse or neglect of any of his children.

In 1982, a nurse discovered Virginia's two sons, Jeremey, who was 20 days old, and Kevin, 1-year-old, home alone. Two months later, DCFS removed the boys. While her sons were in the custody of DCFS, Virginia gave birth to Jessie on September 22, 1983. DCFS returned Jeremy and Kevin to the custody of Virginia in December of 1983.

Three months after they gave her custody, 19-month-old Jeremy was hospitalized for fever blisters around his mouth, a burn on his buttocks, and "loop-shaped" marks covering his entire buttocks, reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Authorities also found marks on Kevin's little body.

DCFS took the children once again.

"I whipped them with whatever I got my hands on, " Virginia told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I didn't want them to come up like me, poor, uneducated, and living on the state."

When her abuse trial came in 1985, Virginia had just given birth to another son, Matthew, who was living in foster care.

She pleaded guilty to the abuse charges. On February 19, 1985, Virginia a judge sentenced Virginia to six years in prison and a $300 fine. She was released in November 1987 and gave birth to her daughter Audrey nine months later. Chandra was born two years later.

In 1992, Virginia Williams did not have a job and had not been employed since 1971. The state decided to return custody of Kevin, 10, Jeremy, 9, and Jessie, 8, back to their mother. Three years later, the state also returned Matthew to her care. According to her children, that is when the abuse and neglect started again.

In 2001, Virginia was living with her daughters, Audrey,12, and Chandra, 10. The girls said Virginia left them alone often. They said although she did not physically abuse them, they had been evicted several times due to her gambling addiction.

"She doesn't beat me, " Audrey said while being interviewed in the presence of her mother, reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "If she whips me, it's like three licks."

According to the boys, they suffered horrific beatings with extension cords and sticks. The boys said they were consistently verbally abused, and locked out of the house at night, and when Virginia lost at gambling, she beat them even more.

Virginia said she and her sons have an estranged relationship.

"We are like strangers. They have been in the system way longer than they have been home," she told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

When Jessie was 12 years old, he was tired of being evicted and asked DCFS to place him in a group home, Virginia told The St. Louis Pos-Dispatch. When Virginia filed a complaint against him for kicking in her front door, DCFS finally placed him in a group home. Jeremy ended up in 30 different group homes.

The abuse Virginia William's children suffered left them with severe emotional scars.

"They learned conflict resolution through violence, " Dr. David C. Norman told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "At their age and what they have gone through, they are the next generation of abusers. You have already seen manifestations of that.... Even with treatment, they will have major problems."

Virginia William's told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she is not responsible for the issues of her adult children.

"Just like I told the police once before, I prayed and cried to get them home and when I tried to whip them and bring them upright, then I got locked up, " she said. "I love them. If anybody is responsible for what they are out there, it's the Children and Family Services," Virginia told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "They will all be dead."

Matthew is the only one of her four sons who seems to have survived unscathed by Virginia's abuse and negligence. Matthew spent most of his life in a foster home, The Duncans. There, he received the discipline, support, and guidance he needed.

In 1995, he was briefly returned to Virginia. Matthew prayed the entire time he was with Virginia to be returned to the Duncans, his foster parents.

"That's why I'm in church now because my prayers were answered, " he told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Matthew witnessed the beatings when he would go to visit his brothers.

"That was her way of disciplining us, " he told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I used to be so scared that I used to jump when she would come around."

The children became desperate for a way out. Jessie decided to poison Virginia with boric acid, a poison she used to kill roaches. He made a plan to put it in her coffee creamer. Before he could follow through with his plan, Matthew accidentally told on Jeremy. Virginia was beating Matthew and while he was getting abused, he told her Jeremy planned to poison her.

"I asked her why she was beating me when Jessie was trying to poison her, " Matthew told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Virginia responded by making both of the boys eat the poison mixture Jeremy concocted. Matthew told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he became very sick after eating the poison.

"I don't remember, " Virginia conceded in an interview, reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Maybe that's true. . . . I could have. I probably did to see if (the boys were telling the truth)."

In 1997, Matthew ran away from home and called the police himself. The authorities returned him to Virginia.

"He asked me one day, 'What do I have to do to get taken from my mother?'" a court advocate said, reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He was ready to do something bad to get out of there. That's the day we removed Matthew from her home."

In 2001, he was a straight-A student with dreams of attending Yale, reports The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Her son Jeremy, however, is a high school dropout. Jeremy was taken from Virginia when she was sentenced to prison and he was just 18 months old.

"I don't wish nobody else to have a mom like her," Jeremy told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "She said she wished she didn't have us, and that she wished she didn't have (the 11 children killed in the fire). She told me plenty times that she wished we were dead."

Jeremy ended up in police and juvenile custody when he was 12 years old. Since he was 17 years old, Jeremy was arrested 17 times by 2001. Jeremy holds anger against his mother and threatened to kill her several times.

"If I didn't have nothing to live for, they all would pay, including my mom and dad, " Jeremy told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, his eyes toward the ceiling as tears rolled down his cheeks. "They will all be dead. I think about it every day. I pray to God to keep me in the right state of mind so I won't go and hurt people."

Jeremy told the Post-Dispatch he feels lost. He said his goals "have all been taken away from me."

Her son Kevin remembered being shut outside in the cold.

"She would hear me cry at the door, " he told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "She would listen, but she wouldn't open the door."

Kevin left home when he was 13 years old and moved in with a schoolmate. In 2001, he was 19 years old and still sleeping on the couch of that home. He was collecting a disability check and working part-time.

"Me, Jessie, and Jeremy, we are having it hard out here, " Kevin told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don't understand the life we are going through, especially when I see the way other people live."

In 2000, Virginia Williams said she had not been back to visit the graves of her children. "I don't believe I can stand it," she told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don't want to be confronted with it. I face it in my own way."

The locations of Virginia Williams and her children are currently unknown.

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