Survivor of West Richland fatal fire living with family babysitter

WEST RICHLAND, Wash. -- We are coming up on the third anniversary of a fire that killed a West Richland mom. In that time, investigators have never been able to prove what started the fire. But the family of Sandy St. George still felt someone was to blame. She filed a wrongful death suit against her husband. KEPR dug back into the archives to discover what happened in that civil suit and what's happened to the survivors.

There's little left of the property on 45th Avenue. The home and workshop is gone. But the memories linger of that March morning in 2011.

Rachael Barnes lived nearby. "I woke up and I looked out the window, and I was like, 'There's a fire!' And I remember getting ready and going to school and being so upset that I had to go to school, not knowing if they were all OK. It broke my heart," said Barnes.

Barnes says a firefighter assured her everyone was out. "And then come to find out, on my way home, on the bus, I found out she had passed away," said Barnes.

Sandy St. George was the only person to perish in the fire. The coroner blamed it on smoke inhalation. Fire officials described the scene as 'an enormous volume of fire with numerous explosions.' Yet Sandy's husband, Thomas St. George, managed to escape. He had just minor injuries. But how? Sandy's family couldn't understand.

Sandy's sister, Sharon Piel, said, "There was a lot going through our heads, like why he made it out. Why he didn't take her out with him? He had three different stories of how he got out of the house, and our initial thought was, he said that the dog woke him up. Well, he had to climb over the top of my sister to get out of the house. Why didn't he take her?"

KEPR asked, "What did he say the reason was that he didn't pick her up?" Piel explained, "He thought that she was behind him."

But she wasn't. The young mother left behind three kids, all under the age of four, the youngest just six months old. Sandy's sister says the children were sleeping at their 16 year old babysitter's house that night. Most parents might think that was atypical to have very small children sleeping away from home, but still in town. Their babysitter was Samantha Avery.

"All I can say is the kids were at Samantha's house and it wasn't originally planned that way. My sister had talked to my mom the night before and they were going away on a vacation, just for the weekend, just my sister and Thomas, and the kids were supposed to be at home, and then the last we know of, the kids weren't there," said Piel.

KEPR asked, "So the kids were supposed to be there that night?" Piel responded, "They were supposed to be there, yes, and then all of a sudden, Samantha had the kids over at her house."

Piel says this was the first time she was aware of the kids sleeping at Samantha's. "Samantha was always at my sister's house.".

It was that same babysitter that Thomas was accused of having an affair with, shortly after the death of his wife. Due to her age, police investigated the allegations. No wrongdoing was found.

Their pastor at Temple Baptist told KEPR back in 2011 that Thomas St. George was "under church discipline" due to his relationship with Avery. But, again, West Richland police found no evidence of a crime.
Avery is now 19 and living with Thomas St. George and his children near Prosser.

The pastor says they are no longer members of Temple Baptist. We reached out to Thomas and Samantha to comment on their life now. Thomas never got back to us. Samantha replied, "I have no comment."

We also went to their home but chose to respect the "No Trespassing" signs posted. Their lives have gone on, but the questions remain.

"There was hundreds of hours of investigation conducted and that really led us to answer many questions, but not ultimately the question we need to say definitively, this is how the fire started and this is how the death ultimately resulted," said West Richland Police Chief Brian McElroy.

West Richland's police chief held a news conference in 2012 to announce the active case was being closed. Without knowing how the fire started, it was impossible to tell if anyone was to blame.

KEPR asked Piel, "Do you and your family believe Thomas played a part in the death of your sister?" She replied, "At this point, I'd rather not answer that."

Chief McElroy says there has been no new information since the closing of the case.

"All the information and evidence that we had received prior, we acted on and we've exhausted all the leads up to that point," said Chief McElroy.

Sharon Piel still wanted someone held responsible for the death of her sister. So she filed a wrongful death suit against Thomas St. George. The family reached a settlement six months ago. Thomas admits no fault but agreed to pay his own children to avoid being held liable for Sandy's death. The kids will get that money when they turn 18. Sharon says she'd like to see her nephews, but Thomas hasn't returned her calls. Sandy's family is still unsettled about the loss of the young mother.

"We believe that there's more information out there. There might not be the right people speaking up, and the cops may not have went to the right people to interview them, but we believe that there's more information out there," said Piel.

Information that could explain just what happened that morning in the home that once stood on 45th Avenue.

The settlement in the civil suit is sealed, so the dollar figure is not public record.