LOVINGSTON — The night before a fatal house fire in 2009, the Blackwell family celebrated a birthday, complete with fried chicken and birthday cake, Linda Campbell Blackwell testified Monday.
Within hours, the festive atmosphere was gone, replaced by chaos as fire tore through the manufactured home at 18 Creekview Lane in Lovingston.
Blackwell is on trial in Nelson County Circuit Court, charged with one count of first-degree murder in the death of James Shelton Sr., three counts of setting fires to an occupied dwelling for blazes on the same property in 2009, 2012 and 2013 and three counts of obtaining money by false pretenses.
She has pleaded not guilty to the charges. She took the stand Monday as the last witness for the defense in the fourth day of the trial.
The evening before the blaze, Blackwell said her family celebrated the birthday of her stepson, “little David,” who had turned 13. When the celebration was over, Linda Blackwell, her husband, David Blackwell, and his longtime friend, James Shelton Sr., watched a John Wayne movie before going to bed, she testified.
Then the fire started.
Blackwell, 58, said she awoke at about 1:25 a.m. to “popping” noises. She got up to investigate and notice flames shooting out of the kitchen in the laundry room area, she said.
There was no way to get to a phone in the kitchen, and her daughter had her cellphone, she said. Her first thought was to go the Nelson County Sheriff's Office about a mile or two away for help, she said.
Her husband told her to go, and she was familiar with the area after working in the court system for a number of years. Blackwell collects disability and said she has not worked since 2008.
“I drove to the sheriff’s office as rapidly as I could,” Blackwell said. “It felt like forever, but it had to be a matter of minutes.”
She ran into the sheriff’s office screaming for help, before she drove back in time to see the roof cave in, she said.
“I was shaking really bad,” Blackwell said.
She found her husband lying in a fetal position under a chestnut tree, in pain from burns sustained in the fire, she said. Shelton also was under the tree, badly burned and asking for water.
David Blackwell had a large blister on his hand, and his throat was swollen, she said.
“David couldn’t talk to me,” she said. “I kind of went into a state of shock.”
The two men were airlifted to the University of Virginia Medical Center. It took months for David Blackwell to recover; Shelton died two days later.
Blackwell said she didn't sleep for days following the fire. Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony Martin said in his opening statement last week Blackwell had financial motivations for setting the fire that, according to the indictment, “accidentally” killed Shelton, as well as the fires in 2012 and 2013.
He said her accounts of events in the three incidents did not add up for investigators. She was arrested Oct. 1, 2013 following a lengthy investigation.
When asked by her lawyer, Paul Valois, if she started the fires or killed Shelton, she replied: “Absolutely not.” She also denied obtaining profit from the fire as well as defrauding Allstate and Liberty Mutual insurance companies.
She testified she had no idea how the fires started. She said from speaking to an investigator, she suspected the 2012 fire was caused by a dishwasher. She was in Lynchburg at the doctor’s office when that fire sparked, she and family members testified. The fires in 2012 and 2013 partially damaged the home.
During Martin’s cross-examination, Blackwell’s voice indicated frustration at some of his questions. He asked why she didn’t give a responding firefighter at the sheriff’s office her address and other actions she took, such as moving a vehicle away from the house before getting into her car to leave.
“Mr. Martin, have you ever been in a fire?” she asked. “I was badly shaken. My home was on fire.”
Several representatives of Allstate and Liberty Mutual who testified said Linda Blackwell was “evasive” at times with information. She testified she cooperated “to the best of my ability” with investigators.
When questioned by Valois on her finances, she said her account has decreased since the fires.
David Blackwell also took the stand Monday and described the events of the 2009 blaze. Shelton, who Linda Blackwell testified was a smoker, lived there as a guest.
“He liked our company,” David Blackwell said. “He enjoyed being there. It was fine with us if he stayed there.”
He said Linda woke him when she heard noises in the kitchen, saying “Oh my gosh! We got a fire.” Shelton was a “night owl” who liked watching television, so David Blackwell expected him to be awake, he said.
David Blackwell testified he did not call 911 because he couldn’t find the cordless phone. He said his wife left to get help, and he and Shelton were out of the house.
Grabbing a water hose, he said he tried to fight the flames from outside and did so until the water pump quit. After that he ran around the house but didn’t see Shelton.
“I couldn’t find him,” he said. “I pretty much knew he went back in.”
David Blackwell re-entered the home and saw fire in the kitchen “coming across like crazy.” He ran to Shelton's bedroom where he saw him standing over his dresser grabbing something that was not described in court.
“I said ‘Jim, we got to get out of here,’” David Blackwell recalled.
Linda Blackwell broke into tears during parts of her husband’s testimony. David Blackwell said he knows of no evidence she had any part in starting the fires.
Valois made a motion to dismiss the case on lack of evidence, which Judge J. Michael Gamble denied. Valois said there is no eyewitness, confession or a “single shred of proof” of arson by his client.
“We’re dealing with an entirely circumstantial case,” Valois said.
Martin argued circumstantial evidence has merit in such cases. He said a fire broke out in a brand new home that recently passed a building inspection. He said Blackwell told a stepdaughter a day before the 2009 blaze she dreamt about fire, and it could be argued “she was thinking about fires” in planning.
He also mentioned a smoke detector that did not have a battery, her emotions “turning off and on” at the time and attempts to obtain receipts for family members for claims “that shows an intent to defraud an insurance company.”
Blackwell on Monday denied seeking any receipts from family members.
The trial resumes today at 9:30 a.m. with closing arguments expected.