Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Thursday, November 28, 2013
How 'person of interest' developed in murder-arson
Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Editor's note: This story was based on information in search warrants filed against Marcel Johnson, 21, of Bristol Township and on autopsy reports. The Bucks County district attorney describes him as a "person of interest" in the double murder arson Monday of Ebony Talley and her daughter, R'Mani Rankins. Johnson has not been charged in the murders or arson.
When firefighters entered apartment 604 in the Avalon Court complex Monday afternoon, they found smoke so thick they couldn’t see anything.
As they moved toward a rear bedroom, they had to move a couch blocking their way.
Once they were inside the bedroom, firefighters found a bed piled with clothing that was on fire. As a firefighter quickly extinguished the fire, she knelt and her legs hit something unexpected.
After the fire was out, the firefighter learned what that was: Face down on the bedroom floor was a dead woman later identified as 22-year-old Ebony Talley.
Talley had what appeared to be stab wounds and possibly a gunshot wound, to her left shoulder and arm. She had a stab wound in her left side and two defensive wounds on her left forearm. Later police learned she was four months pregnant.
Family member reacts at murder scene
As other firefighters entered the apartment, they broke or opened windows in the living room to let the smoke escape. Once the air cleared, they found something equally disturbing.
A small child's foot was sticking out from beneath a second, overturned couch.
The girl was identified as R’Mani Rankins, Talley’s 4-year-old daughter. She had a stab wound on her upper chest and third-degree burns on her belly.
Firefighters put R’Mani in a waiting ambulance and rushed her to St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown. The girl was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly before 4:30 p.m. — less than an hour after authorities said the fire was set in the apartment.
Meanwhile, officials determined the fire was suspicious because it appeared to be focused on the bedding and clothing.
Suddenly, what started as an apartment fire had turned into a double murder and arson investigation. An autopsy found that mother and daughter were both stabbed to death.
R'Mani died of the single stab wound; her burns occurred after she died, according to the autopsy. Her mother died of multiple stab wounds. She had other trauma and significant burns that appear to have occurred before she died, the autopsy revealed.
At the scene, Bristol Township police learned that 10 minutes before the fire was discovered, another Avalon Court resident saw a newer maroon car pull out of a parking space close to Building 600. The driver pulled out fast and in reverse, hitting a parked car, the witness told police. The car sped out of the complex and onto Bristol-Oxford Valley Road.
The car, a 2003 Cadillac, was registered to the woman who held the lease for apartment 604, police learned. Earlier that day, witnesses said it had been parked at the complex.
At 5:44 p.m., police spoke with a relative of Talley, who said she had just spoken with 21-year-old Marcel Johnson, who also lived in the Avalon Court complex. Johnson told the relative he was at a nearby apartment complex in the 3000 block of Ford Road.
A Bristol Township detective checked the tip and found the Cadillac, which had a Pennsylvania license plate that didn’t belong to the vehicle. Police watched the vehicle until shortly after 7 p.m., when Johnson got in and drove away. Police stopped the car and took Johnson into custody.
Police searched Johnson and arrested him after they found him in possession of a plastic bag with 11 clear baggies, which police described as the kind commonly used to package illegal drugs.
Scene of double murder & arson at Avalon Court
About a half hour later, Johnson admitted to police he was at Apartment 604 earlier before the fire, and was with Talley and her daughter just before their deaths, according to the search warrant. The warrant said he admitted taking the 2003 Cadillac from the apartment complex parking lot, hitting a parked car and driving to the Ford Road complex.
But Johnson also gave police “conflicting accounts as to his possible involvement (in the murder and arson).” The warrants don't explain what that means.
Police obtained and executed two search warrants against Johnson for the Cadillac, seeking clothing, DNA evidence, trace evidence including hairs and fibers, fingerprints and blood, firearm projectiles, knives, edged weapons, combustibles, ignition sources or other materials that could start a fire, cellphones, documents that belonged to the victim, plus a DNA sample, fingernail scrapings, photographs of Johnson’s body and other biological evidence and clothing from Johnson.
Johnson was arrested and arraigned Tuesday morning on a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia possession charge and sent to Bucks County prison in lieu of 10 percent of $50,000 bail.