PARKERSBURG - Charlie Lawrentz spent almost 30 years as a police officer in Parkersburg.
He responded to thousands of incidents and made more arrests than he cares to remember. In his law enforcement career Lawrentz has vivid memories of crime scenes, but few are as memorable as the Bailey family fire in June 1969.
"That was a bad fire," he said.
Lawrentz, a Vietnam veteran, had been on the force two years and was on patrol early Sunday morning, June 8, 1969, when he responded to a fire on the south side near Division Street and West Virginia 2. The tar-paper house, a seven-room structure with an adjacent two-room dwelling, was in one of the poorer sections of the city.
"When I rolled in, it was totally engulfed," Lawrentz said.
Lawrentz got out of his car and ran toward the house. He quickly realized there were people trapped inside although he had no idea how many.
"There was a female in the back of the house screaming," he said. "I remember picking up this huge rock, which I probably couldn't pick up during normal circumstances. I threw it through the back of the house."
Lawrentz said the rock crashed through the wall, but the heat and flames were too great. He could see a female inside, but there was nothing Lawrentz could do to save her. The rickety structure didn't appear safe.
"She was totally engulfed in flames. I couldn't get in there to get her and the back of the house started falling in," he said. "If you went in that house, you would have been dead."
Lawrentz said the heat from the fire was unbearable. It burned off the power lines going into the house.
"You couldn't stand it."
He went to another side of the house where he was told a baby was still inside.
"I got underneath a window and reached in," he said. "I got my head up to the window and I could see black smoke billowing (out). I could see a baby blanket and I pulled it toward the window.
"There was a baby bottle there. About the time I got the baby over where I could see it, the bottle blew up.
"The baby was fried," he said. "Everybody else (in the house) was fried."
When fire crews got the blaze under control, 12 people living in the house were dead.
Charles Bailey, 41, his wife, Ruby, 36, and 10 of their children from 17 years to 6 months old perished.
"A dead body never bothered me, (dead) kids do," Lawrentz said.
Three people, including two of the Baileys' children, Susie, 15, and Roger, 13, had escaped along with their 63-year-old grandfather Obie Bailey.
Charles Bailey had been employed by the county as a maintenance supervisor. Originally from Wirt County, the family had relocated to the southside for his job. They lived in the rented house for about two weeks prior to the fire.
As fire officials descended on the scene sifting through the debris, it became obvious the fire had been intentionally set.
Former Wood County Sheriff Lee Bechtold recalled discovering an open gasoline can on Charles Bailey's county vehicle. Fire inspectors found numerous points of origin for the fire inside the house. Suspicion quickly fell on the three survivors.
Susie and Roger Bailey slept in a two-room structure adjacent to the house. The two escaped the fire, but were nowhere to be found during the blaze.
Officials later discovered the two ran to a nearby store where Susie called her boyfriend, 19-year-old John Bumgarner, to pick them up. When Bumgarner arrived Roger Bailey told him the house was on fire. The three walked to a relative's house on nearby Hamilton Street.
Obie Bailey was the only adult who survived the blaze. Separated from his wife, who was living in Canton, Ohio, Obie Bailey had been staying with another daughter and her family in Wirt County. Bailey told investigators he had medical problems and was receiving treatment in Parkersburg while staying with Charles and Ruby.
Bailey told investigators the fire awoke him and he escaped by crawling out a bathroom window.
Law enforcement officials arriving at the fire gave told investigators Bailey was sitting in a chair near the flames, making no effort to help those trapped inside. He had also reportedly given investigators false information regarding his finances.
Law enforcement officials and many relatives felt Obie Bailey was the culprit.
As relatives sat around the kitchen table at Carl Bailey's Hamilton Street house in the early morning hours of June 9 speculating on Obie Bailey's possible motives, Roger Bailey spoke in defense of his grandfather.
"I'll bet $10,000 grandpop didn't set that fire," Roger reportedly told his relatives, according to statements given to investigators and obtained by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.
"If you will not tell anyone, I will tell you something about that fire," Roger told his relatives and then confessed to helping Susie Bailey set fire to the home.
Roger Bailey would again confess to Assistant State Fire Marshal E.L. Roush and another relative, Helen Enoch.
Susie Bailey, when asked about the fire by Roush, also confessed in the presence of Enoch.
Bailey, a pretty, dark-haired 15-year-old, had reportedly been quarreling with her parents over Bumgarner. According to interviews with police, the two were first cousins and her father did not want her seeing the young man. He threatened to have Bumgarner arrested and send Susie Bailey to reform school.
A little more than 24 hours after the fire, Susie Bailey and her brother Roger were in the Wood County Prosecuting Attorney's office, charged with the murder of their parents. It wasn't long before 10 additional counts of murder were tacked on for the deaths of their siblings: Nancy, 17; Theresa, 11; Claudia, 9; Mary, 7; Tim, 6; Debbie, 5; Frank, 4; Dale, 3; Charles, 1 and 5-month- old Rickie. Claudia Bailey was just a week past her ninth birthday. Mary Bailey was two days shy of her eighth birthday.
The deaths of the 12 Baileys at the hands of the two children would be the worst case of alleged parricide in the nation. In addition to being big news locally, the eyes of the world turned its attention to Parkersburg.
Editor's Note; This is the first in a three-part series about the tragic 1969 fire that claimed 12 members of the same family in south Parkersburg. The series continues Monday and will conclude Tuesday.