ARCADIA — Bruce Blandin said his cousin Marcus’ last words were: “Granddaddy! Help!”
The 10-year-old’s grandfather, Arnold Mele, was kneeling outside his house on South Lee Avenue in Arcadia in 2017, as his home went up in smoke behind him.
Mele had tried to rescue Marcus and his two other grandchildren — Kiani, 8, and Kemaran, 4 — but suffered burns on his body and was forced to flee the house.
Bruce Blandin, who lived across the street at the time, was awakened from his sleep by Theresa Redding, who had been staying with Mele.
“I thought I was dreaming,” said Blandin, answering a question from Assistant State Attorney Cliff A. Ramey.
Redding told him that the boys were still inside the burning house. Blandin saw Mele kneeling across the street and approached the property. He heard Marcus cry out as he tried to find a way into the house.
Blandin soon called 911, waiting for the police and firefighters to arrive. By the time they were able to control the flame and enter the premises, however, all three boys had died from smoke inhalation.
Nearly four-and-a-half years later, Blandin was sitting in court at the DeSoto County Courthouse on Monday for the first day of the trial of Marian Evette Williams, the woman charged with setting the fire that caused the boys’ deaths.
Blandin paused at least twice in his testimony as he recalled the fire and hearing Marcus cry out. Tissues were provided, and Blandin buried his face in his hands at least once when the court paused to provide a break to the jurors.
Williams, 53, of Bartow, is facing three charges of premeditated murder for the death of the three boys. Prosecutors have also charged her with the attempted homicide of Mele and Redding, as well as charges of arson, burglary, and burglary with assault or battery.
Blandin told the court that he had seen Williams in the area sometime after 3 a.m. on March 11, 2017. His dogs had been barking, he said, and he shouted at them to “shut up.”
Then another voice replied “shut up” back at him; a voice he recognized as Williams. He looked around and spotted her bicycle — black with green wheels, and a safety light on the back — and observed her approach Mele’s house across the street by the light of a streetlamp.
Blandin attempted to record the moment when he allegedly saw Williams try to climb in a window to the house, but said he gave up due to the darkness being too strong for his phone. He also said he saw her shaking a “white container.”
He did send a text to his second cousin Kenya Blandin, Mele’s daughter and the three boys’ mother, reporting Williams’ behavior.
Later in the day, Kenya Blandin — now Kenya Lynette, after a later marriage — corroborated that her cousin had contacted her. She said she had left her boys with her father, while she prepared for an early shift at Publix.
Lynette said she passed by the house around 3:47 a.m., after her cousin warned her about Williams. She said she saw nothing alarming about the situation and left.
Lynette also paused her testimony when the subject of her children came up, especially her youngest son Kemaran.
“He just turned 4,” said Lynette.
Both Blandin and Lynette testified that Mele had an “off-and-on” relationship with Williams, who occasionally stayed at his house and even helped watch the boys along with her own grandchildren.
Lynette said she had known Williams for about a year at the time of the fire, and had even driven Williams from her home in Bartow to Mele’s home in Arcadia on a regular basis. Despite this contact, Lynette told the court she had no relationship to Williams outside of her father.
As Blandin recounted his story, Williams sat and watched with her attorneys. She gave little visible reaction, sitting still in a light-blue dress most of the day. When Blandin described hearing a fight between Mele and Williams the day before the fight, however, she could be seen shaking her head.
After Ramey finished interviewing both witnesses Monday afternoon, Daniel Hernandez — Williams’ lead defense attorney — cross-examined each of them.
Hernandez started off his questioning of Blandin by asking him if he was currently facing 10 counts of sexual battery against a victim over the age of 12 but under 18. Blandin answered yes.
Ramey had previously asked Blandin this question, to which he answered “yes.” He also asked Blandin if he had been offered any “plea,” “promise,” or “threat” in exchange for his testimony; Blandin said no.
Hernandez also asked pointed questions about the timeline of events revolving around the fire, and Blandin’s mindset when he allegedly saw Williams try to enter the home. He noted that Blandin did not contact 911 until after the fire was underway.
“Did it not concern you?” Hernandez asked.
“They argued sometimes,” Blandin replied.
Both Hernandez and Ramey recalled testimony earlier in the day from Blandin’s mother, Fontella Luther, and his housemate at the time, Emmette Grubbs. Each witness claimed to have heard and partially seen an encounter between Mele and Williams on South Lee Avenue the day before the fire.
Luther testified that she heard Williams say: “I’m gonna burn down your damn house.”
Grubbs testified that before that, he heard Williams shout: “You don’t know me! I’ll kill you and your family!”
Hernandez questioned each on cross examination, attempting to assess each person’s relationship with Theresa Redding, whom the attorney described as a “rival” to Williams for Mele’s attention.
In response to asking if Grubbs was “good friends” with Redding and Mele, Grubbs replied: “I don’t know why you keep saying ‘good friends.’ I know them.”
The comment elicited a rare chuckle from the jury in an otherwise serious trial.
Hernandez also noted that Grubbs had several felony convictions to his name, asking if he had received a plea deal from the State Attorney. Grubbs denied such a plan.
Ramey previously brought up the situation, as well as the fact that Grubbs faced a number of drug-related charges in a separate case. On re-direct examination after Hernandez’ questioning, he also noted that Grubbs’ last conviction was from 2005.
The trial is expected to continue at 9 a.m. Tuesday.