CHESTER, Ill.—A 33-year-old man who pleaded not guilty to murder charges related to an Illinois house fire that killed four children had previously threatened to kill anyone who had harmed his children, according to witnesses.
Randolph County prosecutors charged Derrick Twardoski on Friday with four first-degree murder counts linked to the blaze early that day in Percy, a village 60 miles southeast of St. Louis.
Twardoski is accused of deliberately setting fire to the home of the Owen family, located in the 800 block of West Almond in Percy, Ill.
It was a terrible crime that Twardowski reportedly predicted hours before while standing outside a bar several miles away in the town of Willsville.
Bar owner Rick Hepp told News 4 a half dozen people were standing out front and Twardkowski appeared to be high when he said someone had stolen one of his children's laptops.
"He said that if anybody messed with, stole from his children, or messed with his children, he would burn their stuff down and kill everyone of them," said Hepp.
No one took the threat seriously but it could now be the evidence that sends Twardowski to prison for the rest of his life.
"It appears that a very big part of our case is goiing to be the good samaritans or the good people that overheard this gentleman perhaps elaborating on his intentions," said Randolph County State's Attorney Jeremy Walker. "We ask anybody that has anything to that effect, please come forward."
During a brief Randolph County court appearance, a judge ordered Twardoski to remain jailed without bond, assigned him a public defender as attorney and scheduled a June 3 preliminary hearing.
Twardoski wore a suicide smock without clothes on and only sandals. News 4’s Laura Hettiger said he cried and looked down most of the time while shaking his head.
The county’s state’s attorney, Jeremy Walker, has said he doesn’t consider Friday’s fire random, although he has declined to say why authorities suspect Twardoski set it or whether Twardoski knew anyone who lived in the home.
Walker and Randolph County Sheriff Mike Hoelscher didn’t immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment Monday.
Authorities say the dead siblings were identified as Ethan Owen, 12, Kailey Owen, 9, and Brandon and Landon Owen, who were 5-year-old twins.
Randy Dudenbostel, the county coroner, said autopsies showed that the four children apparently died of smoke inhalation. They were found dead in upstairs bedrooms of the two-story home.
Dudenbostel declined to discuss the deaths further because of the ongoing criminal case.
A 6-year-old child was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation, and the children’s parents and an 18-year-old woman escaped the fire.
Twardoski, who doesn’t have a listed home telephone number, has had legal troubles for years in the region, including convictions in Illinois’ St. Clair County of criminal trespassing, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, burglary, fighting, driving under the influence and various other traffic offenses, court records show. In nearby Clinton County, his convictions include charges of mob action and battery.
Visitations for the four children were scheduled for later Monday, and their funerals were scheduled for Tuesday at a church the family attended in Steeleville, Ill.
Officials with the Trico Community Unit District No.176 said school would be cancelled so faculty, staff and students could attend the funeral.
Contributions to the victims' family can be made at First National Bank, located at 304 W. Main Street in Ava, Ill.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.