Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Cold Case Archives

July 31, 2011

‘We have no suspects at all’ — Fatal Big Sandy blaze remains under investigation

BIG SANDY — Some cases go cold after time, but one McDowell County case that started out in a blaze that claimed three lives, went cold before the West Virginia State Police could catch a single lead into the case. To this day, more than six years after the May 9, 2005 fire that claimed the lives of Amanda “Sissy” Loraine Mullins, 20, of Premier, Dennie Ray Shearl Jr., 30, of Big Sandy and James A. “Big Poppa” Ward Jr., 29, of Roderfield, state police still don’t know if the three deaths were caused by accident or by foul play.

“We have no suspects at all,” Sgt. W.C. Tupper said. Tupper is commander of the Welch Detachment of the West Virginia State Police. “The investigating officers heard rumors, but there were no hard suspects who came out of the investigation.

“It was a suspicious fire, but the residence itself was so badly destroyed in the fire that the state fire marshal (Robbie Bailey) could not determine a point of origin. Nobody was seen at or around the scene of the fire before it was first reported. A trash collector was making his rounds when he saw it and radioed it in.”

Jason Perdue was operating a trash truck in the Big Sandy area that morning. He turned his truck around on State Route 7, and started backing it up to the residence that was located up a long and narrow lane.

“When he was turning around to back up to the residence, Mr. Perdue said he didn’t see anything — not even any smoke,” Tupper said. “When he started backing up the lane, he radioed his office and advised them that the residence was engulfed in flames. That was at 7:10 a.m., when he radioed the office.”

The Roderfield Volunteer Fire Department received the call at 7:30 a.m., according to initial newspaper reports of the incident. The structure was a single-wide manufactured home with an addition, according to Assistant State Fire Marshal Robbie Bailey. According to Bailey’s initial statement, the volunteer fire fighters reported that the structure “was already on the ground” when they arrived. Bailey stated that the bodies of three adults were found during a search of the residence.

Tupper said the state police investigators — Senior Trooper J.W. Keffer, now assigned to the detachment in Jesse, and former Sgt. G.A. Bishop, now a student at the Appalachian School of Law — were unclear about whose residence it was. “My idea is that they were friends,” Tupper said.

“They all died as a result of smoke and soot inhalation as a result of the fire,” Tupper said. “They were not dead before the fire started. We had no other information.”

According to Tupper, the three victims were found close together in the basement of the structure. “They were not scattered,” he said. “There was no other thing suspicious about the bodies — no gashes or cuts.” He speculated that the victims were likely in the main floor of the structure, but their remains had probably fallen to the ground when the structure collapsed. The police report indicated that Ward and Shearl were both from Roderfield, but Shearl’s obituary that appeared in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph 10 days after the fire listed his address as Big Sandy. The death notice for Ward that appeared in the paper on May 20, 2005, did not list his residence, but reported his death at Big Sandy. His funeral service was at the Temple Baptist Church in Havaco. Arrangements were handled by Gregory-Page Funeral Home in Welch.

According to Shearl’s obituary, he was engaged and was employed as a night watchman for Energy Recovery at Carswell and affiliated with the Big Sandy Church of God, where his funeral services were held on May 20, 2005. Fanning Funeral Home of Iaeger handled the arrangements.

Mullins, whose address was listed as Premier, graduated from Iaeger High School in 2000 and had lived in McDowell County most of her life. Her funeral service was held at the Ark of Safety Church in Roderfield, with the Reverend Michael Brooks officiating. Brooks is McDowell County circuit clerk and former county sheriff. Fanning Funeral Home of Welch handled the arrangements.

“When you have a fire like that, a lot of evidence is destroyed and it is hard to conduct an investigation,” Tupper said. “This is not your typical unsolved case where you have a victim and you know a crime was committed. This is a case where you just don’t know anything.”

In his 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder examined a similar situation where five individuals with no apparent connection died in the collapse of a footbridge in Peru. His work of fiction examines the lives of the individuals to determine how they arrived at the same point at the same time. Tupper said that the lack of hard evidence in this case has made it particularly challenging.

“When you conduct an investigation, you search for answers,” Tupper said. “In a case like this, we just don’t know.”

Tupper encouraged anyone with additional information on the case to contact him at the Welch Detachment at (304) 436-2101.

— Contact Bill Archer at

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