Witness: IA Defendant Had Threatened to Kill Before Fatal Fire

Jeff Reinitz

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa


Nov. 24—WATERLOO — Hours before a fatal house fire killed a 9-year-old and his mother, Denise Susanna O’Brien was threatening to kill everyone in the home, according to a friend.

O’Brien, 45, of Waterloo, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the 2018 blaze that killed Jaykwon Sallis and 32-year-old Ashley Smith on Dawson Street.

Prosecutors allege O’Brien was upset that her boyfriend, Willie Traymone Phillips, was seeing Teryn Netz, who also lived at the home, and set the fire in the early morning hours of April 22, 2019.

Hours before the fire, around 1 a.m., O’Brien had been at the house and became involved in a scuffle with Phillips and Netz.

When she left, O’Brien talked about killing people at the house, according to Charles “Chuck” Newman, 35, who drove her home after the 1 a.m. confrontation and testified on Tuesday.

“She said that she should go up there and kill everyone at the house,” Newman, who is currently living in a Mississippi care facility, told jurors through video conference testimony.

O’Brien made statements about harming herself three or four times as he drove her home, and she talked about killing others only once, according to Newman’s account.

Newman said he didn’t take the threats seriously.

“When she said it, I didn’t give much thought to it because we had been drinking, and she was upset, and I thought she was blowing off steam, just saying things,” Newman said. “I never thought she would have acted upon what she was saying.”

He said he later told police about O’Brien’s statements about harming herself but not about the threats to kill others.

“I did not see Denise burn the house down, and at the time she was my friend. So saying this I kind of felt like I was betraying her,” Newman said.

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Wendy Samuelson, Newman said he didn’t tell investigators of the statements about killing others until after he was in jail on unrelated charges.

He said he had hoped to get probation for the information he provided, but there was never a deal for his testimony.

Authorities said they found a large fire on the front porch of 536 Dawson St., and a smaller fire on the back steps. Samples from the back steps tested positive for gasoline.

O’Brien denied being in the area of the house at the time of the fire, but prosecutors allege she was spotted at the Broadway Street Kwik Star — about a block away from the house — as fire engines were headed to the fire.

Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled for Monday.


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