Court records detail grievances between Butte fire victims and landlord
As rumors swirl about the cause of a trailer home fire that claimed the lives of five little girls in Butte last week, court documents offer up some facts on grievances between the tenants and their then landlord.
According to Armando Astorga, things were finally starting to look up for his brother, Jimmy Flores and his wife, Janelle Quakenbush. After being unemployed for months, Flores had landed a job working for the Mat-Su Borough School District. He was in training to be a bus driver Thursday when he got a terrible call. His home had burned to the ground, with all five of his daughters inside.
Jaelynn was 3 years old, Sophia was 6 years old, Lillyanna was 7 years old, Nevaeh was 8 years old and Alexis was 12 years old.
Astorga said the girls' mother had left their 12-year-old daughter in charge while she went to drop off their grandmother at her home, so she could borrow her car. By the time she arrived home, the trailer was engulfed in flames.
Astorga told KTVA Saturday that his brother’s family intended to move out soon, and they didn’t feel safe in the home due to maintenance issues.
“I know my brother and the landlord, because of stuff that was going on in the house… he was just upset and wanted to get things taken care of but they weren't getting taken care, of so I guess they went to court or whatever,” Astorga said.
Court records from April of this year, show the landlord at the time, Jackie Hughes, tried to evict the family because they had not paid their monthly rent of $825.00 for the 650 square foot trailer home. They also hadn’t been able to keep up with utilities.
A transcript from the eviction hearing on April 14 shows Flores told the judge:
“It hadn’t been the best year.”
Quakenbush told the judge the furnace hadn’t been serviced in over two years, and when the filter was finally taken out, it wasn’t replaced for three weeks. The transcript also says she told the judge, she let the landlord know the door to the trailer, near her daughter’s room, was frozen open on December 30, 2016. She said they tried chipping away the ice and even put a dresser in front of it, but the door wasn’t looked at until February 12, this year.
Heating the home then became a financial hardship, at $375 for the month of December, $417 for January and $395 for February -- with separate electric bills. According to the transcript, they made over $1,900 in payments between January and February, but couldn’t keep up.
Jose Rolon, standing in for Hughes, who is his stepfather, told the judge he was willing to work with them, offering the option to deposit $500 on April 8, and the rest on April 23, but once they fell behind on utilities, his stepfather told him he’d “stepped over his boundaries trying to help them,” and he had to take his word back because Hughes felt he was being “jerked around.”
The court found “payments could have been received if fairly dealt with” and “defendants have tried to rectify.” The judge did not grant the eviction.
Attorney Eric Conrad represented Hughes and Rolon during the hearing. When reached by phone Tuesday, he told KTVA he wanted to clarify that -- consistent with the transcript, “There was no declaration from the judge that the place was ‘uninhabitable’”, as claimed in another online publication.
When asked about other accusations made against the landlord following the fire, Conrad said, “He's not willing to get into a press laden debate over who said what when. Things that were brought to his attention, he addressed, or was going to address. The only issue would be getting access to the premises to make repairs, because again, here's another thing I'm willing to speak broadly about, Alaska law -- the tenant has possession of the premises and a landlord's got to respect that, therefore, in the absence of quote on quote emergencies, a landlord can't get his repair man and his materials and rush over to fix it. He needs cooperation from tenants to make the repairs.”
Conrad also told KTVA, Hughes knew the children through interactions with the family and is “devastated” by their deaths.
Rolon told KTVA Tuesday he would rather not make a public statement while the state fire marshal’s investigation into the fire is ongoing.
A search of property records for the address of the mobile home shows the property is now owned by TGI Funding, of which, Chris Elder is listed as the owner. KTVA has been unable to reach Elder for comment.
KTVA reached out to the family through Astorga for a comment on this report but did not hear back.