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A girl's life

Neglected by her parents, overlooked by the state, Acia Johnson was making a life for herself and her beloved baby sister, until their house was set ablaze

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Keith O'Brien and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / June 1, 2008

In her final moments, she appeared in her bedroom window. The fire was closing in, raging through the narrow, yellow row house in South Boston. From the window, three stories up, 14-year-old Acia Johnson could see and hear help.

Sirens wailed in the distance. On the ground below stood her mother, her twin brother, and the family dog, all safe.

But Acia was trapped with her 3-year-old sister, Sophia, alone together - as they had been for much of their lives. Their mother was a drug addict, who repeatedly left the children to fend for themselves while she chased quick highs and fed powerful addictions. Their father, a chronic drinker and a petty thief, spent as much time in jail as out. The parents fought - often violently. Sometimes, the violence turned on the kids.

In that way, Acia in particular was like thousands of children neglected by absent parents. She came up with neither role models nor stability, overlooked by the very state officials charged with protecting her, flush with reasons to give up, act out, or think small. Many children in Boston go bad over less.

But in the months before the fire, even with her little sister on her hip, Acia was finding a way out. She was excelling in her studies and becoming the star of her middle school basketball team. She was falling for a boy, a good boy, and being recruited to play basketball at a championship-caliber high school.

The girl with every excuse to crumble had made options for herself. All she needed was a little help - more inquisitive social workers, sober parents, relatives willing to intervene. Someone, anyone, who would take a stand. No one did.

The fire that swept through Acia's home on that early April morning was deliberately set, authorities say, the act of her mother's enraged lover. But in many ways, it was also the culmination of years of abuse that others could have prevented and that Acia, try as she might, could not overcome. There was only so much a 14-year-old girl could do.

It was 3 a.m. Her mother was half drunk. Her father slept in a jail cell a mile away. The girls stood amid the smoke and flames as people shouted to them from below.

Throw the baby.

Jump.

Smoke spilled out the window. Flames crept ever closer. Fire engines rumbled toward the row house on West Sixth Street, and Acia made her decision. She wouldn't let Sophia go.

"I can't drop her," her mother said Acia shouted.

And with that, Acia slipped into the smoke.

***

The mother sat on an overstuffed couch in the living room of a friend's apartment, a block from the burned-out house, a few weeks after the fire. There was a large plastic trash bag filled with charred belongings at her feet and soot beneath her fingernails. Anna Reisopoulos was rummaging through the past.

The girls. The fights. The house.

"Behind those doors," she conceded, "it was chaos."

Anna confesses now that she wasn't around enough, didn't spend enough time with Sophia, and never watched Acia (pronounced uh-SEE-uh) play basketball. She treated Acia like hired help at times, ordering her to care for her little sister whenever she wasn't in school. And when Acia disobeyed, Anna would berate her. Sometimes, she hit her.

"I was so strict with her," Anna said.

But being too strict was the least of Anna's failings. By the time of the fire, Anna had a rap sheet five pages long with multiple convictions for theft, two for assault and battery and another for threatening to stab a 14-year-old boy. She was also a drug addict, a habitual user of marijuana, cocaine, and prescription painkillers.

Her volatility and lawlessness spurred investigation after investigation of child neglect and one of abuse. She beat Acia's brother, she brought her children along while committing crimes, and she left the children alone for hours while she ran the streets doing drugs, mostly crack cocaine. The drugs, she said, were "numbing."

Anna, from the time she was teenager, was a case study in dysfunction. She was overweight, craved attention, and was obsessed with appearances. She expected to have the best of everything - clothes, food, jewelry - even if it meant she had to steal it.

Deep down, though, she wanted to be a good mother. When clean, the 34-year-old daughter of Greek immigrants was devoted to her children. She reveled in their love, taught them the Greek alphabet, and for years always showed up for parent-teacher conferences at school.

But Anna couldn't keep it together for long, not even when her oldest daughter asked her to. Time and again, it was Acia in the parental role: asking her mother not to do drugs, not to let her temper turn violent, not to once again make the wrong choices. It was Acia who asked her mother to break off the volatile relationship with Nicole Chuminski, the unemployed 25-year-old woman whom Anna fell in love with after the children's father was most recently hauled off to jail.

"She knew," Anna said. "I should have listened."

But Anna didn't. She kept running the streets, and Acia, in her mother's absence, kept taking care of Sophia. She spent so much time mothering her little sister last fall that when asked at school to list her hobbies, Acia listed only one: "Babysitting."

Still, Anna didn't much think about Acia's plight, not until after the fire, when she sat with the soot on her hands. "I burdened her," Anna said. "I burdened her with so much responsibility."

***

In the midst of a late summer heat wave, Acia Johnson was born to shouting.

It was after midnight on Sept. 16, 1993, and 19-year-old Anna had just given birth to her first child, Ray Jr. But pregnant with twins, Anna still had one more to go. And when Anna told Raymond Johnson Sr., the babies' father, that she didn't think she could do it - she didn't think she could deliver the second child - Ray said he started "freaking out," yelling at Anna until finally doctors escorted him out of the room.

"You gotta do it!" he recalled yelling. "You gotta get my daughter out of you!"

They hadn't planned on these children. Ray, just 22 at the time of the births, was a petty criminal with more than two dozen arrests on his record. He was prone to stealing cars and had met Anna while in a Boston jail the previous September.

Anna, living with her mother in public housing in Somerville, had begun talking to the lonely convict at the request of a friend. Within a week, she recalled, he told her he loved her. She said she loved him back. Soon after his release that fall, Anna was not only pregnant but asking Ray to make a promise. She wanted to know that he would be with her forever.

Ray promised he would. And despite his shouting on the morning Acia and Ray Jr. were born, the births marked a happy time.

Ray and Anna soon packed up and moved to Clearwater, Fla., to start over far away from Boston. They rented a 650-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in Stratford Village, a sprawling complex of squat, two-story buildings sandwiched between a highway and a power station. There were palm trees and beaches nearby. And there was a job at a bagel shop in a strip mall for Ray.

But their union proved toxic from the start. In June 1994, Anna started stealing groceries, bath linens, and clothes from Clearwater stores. She got arrested three times. And after the third arrest, on Halloween, she and Ray fought in the apartment - a fight that resulted in Ray being booked for battery. According to police, Anna's face was bruised and swollen, and the next day she set out, with pepper spray in hand, to have her revenge.

She walked inside the bagel shop where Ray worked, sprayed him in the face, and later confessed to police, who soon made another discovery. While Anna was attacking Ray in the strip mall, the children - barely a year old - were home alone for some five hours.

The young mother was charged with child abuse, convicted two months later in January 1995, and ordered to take parenting classes as part of her probation. Ray agreed to attend domestic violence counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to help resolve his case.

But neither followed through. Instead, they fled the state and moved back to Massachusetts, where the warrants issued for their arrests in Pinellas County, Fla., would not catch up to them.

Acia's father sat in a small, white room in Suffolk County Jail, studying his hands and the clean, smooth surface of the table before him. Everything in the room - the table and the chairs - was nailed down. But inside, Ray Johnson was spinning.

Ray, 37 and serving a five-year sentence for breaking and entering and burglary, is devastated by the fire and his daughters' deaths. And he was upset with Anna, with Nicole, and with state social workers, who were long aware of the family's problems but failed to avert disaster.

"They had the nerve to call me yesterday on the phone," Ray said. "I told them how I felt about the whole situation. I said, 'There's nothing you can tell me that would change my mind, that I strongly feel that it's your fault that my babies are gone.' "

But, then, Ray knows he was at fault, too.

He grew up in the South End, the adopted son of Irene Gregory. His biological parents handed him over to Gregory shortly after he was born, he said, and the idea that he wasn't wanted deeply cut him as a boy. "To this day," Ray said, "it hurts."

Ray fell in with the wrong crowd at a young age. He dropped out of school, started stealing cars and, later, items from stores. "Shoplifting," he said, "can become an addiction." He got a rush from pocketing DVDs, cellphone accessories, and diamond rings. But his motivation, he said, was practical as well. The stolen items - often sold on the street - meant extra money for Anna and the kids.

Neighbors on West Sixth Street in South Boston saw Ray as the glue of the family. When he was at home, the kids wanted for nothing. At school, Acia - CeCe to her friends - made her love for her father known. "I'm a Daddy's girl," her classmates recalled her saying.

But as she got older, Acia was increasingly concerned about her father. He had a pattern: Get out of jail, stay clean for a while and hold down a steady job, then start drinking and doing drugs - "old habits," Ray called them. Inevitably, he would lose the job and go back to stealing.

Sometimes, Acia would go to him and ask him not to do it, as she did last year before Ray's arrest in October.

"She would be straight and direct and would tell me things that I'm doing - adult things," Ray said. "She'd talk to me, like, real. Like a little adult. I used to take advice from her. She'd be like, 'Well, Daddy, you stopped working. You need to go get a job. You need to do this and that.'

"And I'd be like, 'Yeah, I'm going to do it.' "

And he did, but it would never last.

***

The family piled into a Plymouth minivan, like any other family of four, and headed out on a suburban excursion. But a typical summer day trip this was not. Anna and Ray had stolen the minivan. And on this Tuesday in June 1999, the goal was shoplifting at a Marshalls store in Braintree, with the kids along for the ride.

Acia and her brother were three months shy of their sixth birthday. She was into dolls, he was into video games. She was always smiling and had maternal instincts even then. "Little Mama," the family called Acia. She would clean up after Ray Jr. and scold him when he misbehaved.

Acia wanted everything just so. Her dolls' hair had to be braided a certain way. She couldn't tolerate a mess. Her outfits needed to be spotless.

She and her brother wore the best of everything, name-brand clothes, Nike and Calvin Klein. And then, there were the meals - banquets, really - with enough food to feed several families.

"There was no such thing as noodles and hot dogs in that house," said Marquita Morrisey, a longtime friend of the family and godmother to the twins. "They had to eat big, lavish meals every single day."

Over the years, the outfits and the meals created the appearance of success. At school - first in Charlestown and later in South Boston - Acia and her brother presented well. They were well dressed and clean. They showed up for class and did their work. Acia impressed teachers with her sunny disposition. She betrayed no hint that anything was amiss at home.

Acia was a good student, but she had to work hard for her grades. She was inquisitive, her teachers said, and determined to learn. Teachers seated new students next to Acia, who was sure to welcome them with her warm, toothy smile, framed by the slightest hint of dimples.

"Acia would take these students on," said Shalisha Smith, Acia's second-grade teacher at Warren/Prescott School in Charlestown. "Bring them into the group. Bring them into the fold. She was always like that."

But the family's appearance of perfection was just that - an appearance. At times, the family had lived in homeless shelters. Like a small-time Bonnie and Clyde, Ray and Anna targeted Kmarts, Wal-Marts, and Dollar Stores. And by June 1999, Ray and Anna were at that Marshalls in Braintree with their kids sitting in a stolen Plymouth minivan.

Ray got out of the van and walked inside the store. He tried to steal some clothes. But as Ray left the store, security guards called police, and soon the children were standing by as officers put handcuffs on their parents and took them away for stealing the van and conspiring to steal more than $250 worth of clothes.

The officers asked Ray and Anna to call someone to come collect their children from the Braintree police station.

No one came.

***

Several weeks after the fire, state officials sat around a conference table in an office building across from the State House. They had been tracking these children nearly from birth; now they were trying to explain how the two young girls died in a house where they weren't supposed to be living.

The state Department of Social Services had known Ray and Anna well. An initial investigation in 1995, when the twins were just 18 months old, had concluded that the parents had violent fights, drank excessively, used and sold drugs, and led what officials described as "a chaotic lifestyle."

"We were concerned about the kids," said Angelo McClain, DSS commissioner since last year. But it wasn't until 1999, when the couple got arrested at Marshalls - and social workers had to be summoned to collect the children - that the agency deemed it necessary to start its most aggressive level of scrutiny with a comprehensive assessment.

At that point, Ray's criminal record was eight pages long and included offenses committed nearly every year for the previous decade. Anna had outstanding warrants for her arrest, and her record included car theft, drug possession, and resisting arrest.

DSS social workers conducting the assessment discovered the bouts of homelessness in the mid to late '90s. Both parents continued to have trouble staying sober, and, McClain said, Anna told them she had attracted the attention of child protection officials in Florida.

Based on those findings, DSS determined Ray and Anna were unfit parents. Acia and her brother were placed in foster care, and then, several months later, put temporarily in the care of Ray's mother in the South End.

DSS swooped in again in December 2000 after Anna gave birth to a third child who suffered at birth from cocaine addiction because of Anna's drug use during pregnancy. The baby, a boy, was turned over to Ray's aunt.

In 2003, DSS intervened once more. After substantiating two more reports - one for neglect, in which Acia and her brother were found locked out of Anna's home, and another for abuse, in which Anna hit Ray Jr. with a belt and thrashed his head against a chair - the agency obtained a court order granting permanent custody of Acia and her brother to Ray's mother and of the third child to Ray's aunt.

"At that point in time," McClain said, "our case was closed."

But soon after, Acia and her brother went back to live with Ray and Anna, in violation of the court order, and plans were laid for a fourth child.

***

The screaming started early in the morning. From the bathroom on the second-floor of their South Boston home, Anna wailed and grunted.

The baby was coming.

There was no rushing to the hospital or frantic calls to 911. Anna, now 30, was determined to keep this baby a secret from DSS. She had been watching the Discovery Health channel for weeks. "Studying," she called it.

Now it was time. Ray dispatched the 11-year-old twins to get scissors to cut the umbilical cord and a hair clip, a purple one fresh from its package, to tie it off. He laid clean towels, comforters, and trash bags on the bathroom floor and waited while Anna pushed.

Sophia emerged into her father's hands, a little purplish and coughing up phlegm as he blew in her face, but crying and apparently healthy.

It was a few days before Thanksgiving 2004, and the holiday celebration would be at Anna and Ray's place that year. Ray cooked a massive spread for neighbors, friends, and far-flung relatives. Everyone took turns holding the baby. They nicknamed her Boo-kie. She was fat and happy.

Her sister, in particular, adored her. Acia had wanted this. "Mommy," Anna recalled Acia begging before Sophia's birth, "can I please have a little sister?" Now that she had one, Acia doted on the child. She walked her around the block, took her to neighborhood basketball courts, where Acia first learned to shoot and dribble, and fixed her bushy mop of brown hair with colorful barrettes and ribbons.

Anna taught Sophia how to count and recite the alphabet in Greek. "Mou makia," Sophia would say, Anna recalled. Give me a kiss. And Sophia would raise her pudgy face and scrunch her lips. For a time, Anna was attentive to the twins, too, showing up for conferences at their school when Ray Jr. got into trouble, as he often did. Ray Sr. was back working as a cook at Pete's Dockside, a South Boston eatery that hired Ray whenever he got out of jail. He was a good worker, dependable and conscientious, when he stayed sober. The owner often sent Ray home with piles of food for his family.

But it was not long before he slipped back into his familiar pattern. In April 2005, not five months after Sophia was born, Acia was riding with Ray when he was pulled over for running a red light in the South End. The car had stolen plates. Ray, his breath thick with alcohol, gave a bogus name and Social Security number and told the officers he was rushing his 11-year-old daughter to a dance.

As officers ran the plates and the name Ray had given them, Ray told Acia to get out of the car and walk to her aunt's house a few blocks away. Acia, appearing distressed, did as she was told. Her father sped off, leading police on a high-speed chase into Roxbury. He was arrested later that night in South Boston. Police, alarmed by his treatment of his daughter in the incident, called the state's 24-hour child abuse hot line.

That got the attention of DSS - as did a report, the following year, that Sophia had swallowed some of her mother's anti-anxiety pills. DSS investigated both incidents. Social workers, learning about Sophia for the first time, concluded that the youngest daughter was not in danger in Anna's care, even though they had determined she couldn't be trusted to raise her older children. And they believed Anna when she said that Acia and her brother just happened to be visiting her home each time they checked in. The children backed up her story, as did Ray's mother, who once a year had signed a form certifying that the twins continued to live with her. DSS said the agency paid Ray's mother, who declined to be interviewed, $1,034 a month to support them.

Had DSS done the most basic cross-checking, however, it would have discovered that Anna told other state agencies a different story. When she applied for housing subsidies, food stamps, and cash assistance, Anna said the twins were living in her home. She received a Section 8 voucher for Acia and her brother. She received cash assistance and food stamps for the children. And the state Department of Revenue filed a lawsuit on her behalf to collect child support payments for Acia and Ray Jr.

But DSS didn't dig deeper. And by late last summer, life in the little yellow row house had reached a new low. Anna was gone many nights, doing crack cocaine with friends and reveling in a new, thinner body. Once weighing in at 298, Anna had shed more than 100 pounds through gastric bypass surgery, paid for in part by public assistance. And Ray - though back home last year - had fallen back into his old ways, drinking and doing drugs.

Each said they tried to persuade the other to get straight. Anna said she told Ray that if he kept stealing, it would be over: She wouldn't visit or call him in jail. And Ray told Anna that they needed to get help - counseling, drug treatment, whatever it took.

"Come on, Boo," he pleaded with her.

But nothing changed. Ray was arrested in Revere on Aug. 11 for shoplifting. Within two months, he was implicated in two more thefts in South Boston, where he broke into discount stores. And then there were the fights, explosive and violent as ever.

Early one Sunday in late September, a venomous fight between Ray and Anna spilled into West Sixth Street. On the sidewalk, they took turns hitting each other and spitting in each other's faces. Acia stood in the doorway and watched, her mother recalled. She threatened to take the baby and leave if her parents didn't stop.

Ray eventually walked away. Within weeks, he would be sent away again. Surveillance cameras had captured him breaking into one of the discount stores, where he pocketed cellphones and cellphone accessory kits. It was over. Ray knew it when police knocked on the door to his house in October and told him they had a warrant for his arrest.

Sophia was crying. Acia was trying to comfort her. He couldn't even say goodbye as police led him away.

Typically, with Ray locked up, Anna would straighten up. But not this time. With Ray gone, and Anna still using drugs, the house often lacked groceries. There wasn't even milk. Friends and neighbors took food to the children and sometimes clothes.

Acia - then in eighth grade at South Boston's Patrick F. Gavin Middle School without her twin brother, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons the year before - was stuck at home nights and weekends caring for her little sister. And she was clashing with her mother. On at least one occasion, the confrontation turned violent.

"I hit her really hard with a belt," Anna said. But Acia just took it.

"Mommy, hit me again," Anna recalled her daughter saying. "I won't cry."

***

Acia, a basketball in hand, toed the three-point line with her Air Jordan sneakers. Then she pulled back, squared up with the ball, and - with a quick flick of her wrist - let it fly. Swish.

Nearby, in the Gavin Middle School gymnasium, Acia's coach and homeroom teacher, Jessica Tang, stood watching. Acia had come recommended. She was a natural talent, Tang was told by one of the school's gym teachers, and coachable, too. The girl would listen.

But 3-pointers? They don't even count in middle school girls' basketball. Most girls Acia's age have trouble hitting a layup, much less a 20-foot jump shot. And so as Acia fired them up one after another in the gymnasium last February, sinking 3-pointer after 3-pointer, Tang was stunned.

"We got something here," she thought.

Acia had grown up playing outside on the neighborhood basketball courts, often with Sophia watching. But no one had counted on this. The girl, standing 5-foot-6 in her sneakers, could shoot.

"Coach Acia," the other girls called her. "Superstar," they cried, jealous of the attention she began to receive after she tried out and made the basketball team in February. But Acia, her bushy hair pulled back in a pony tail, paid them no mind.

With the ball in her hands, Acia had what she'd craved for so very long: a little bit of control. She was somebody. And with her life unraveling at home, Acia began to pull away, making choices on her own.

She was falling for a boy. All winter and spring, Acia had flirted with Joseph Green, a classmate at Gavin. The girls thought him sweet; the teachers loved him. Like Acia, he was a good student, focused and hard-working. And though a star in his own right, wearing No. 23 for the boy's basketball team, Joseph was shy, his voice rarely above a whisper. The lanky kid, all arms and legs, hardly knew what to say when Acia called him her husband in front of others. And when Acia's friend Howard Robinson finally asked Joseph in late March if he would go out with her, Joseph said he wasn't sure.

"Yes or no?" Howard pressed in the school cafeteria.

Not sure, Joseph told him again.

But a few days later, he delivered his message back to Acia: Yes, he would go out with her. Acia delighted in the news, planting an innocent kiss on Joseph in homeroom, in front of their friends. Even with the school's semiformal dance more than two months away, she began making plans to go with Joseph, chattering about it with friends.

Their relationship became the talk of the eighth grade, just as Acia's basketball talent was the talk of the school. In the first game of the season, she had scored an unheard-of 20 points - all but four of the team's total in a 24-8 blowout. In each of the next four games, she scored in double digits. People, including Cory McCarthy, began to take notice.

"Who's No. 10?" he asked while attending a girls' basketball game at the Gavin on March 18.

"CeCe," a spectator replied.

McCarthy, an affable man with beefy arms from his days as a defensive end on the football team at East Boston High School, wasn't just some guy watching a game. He was the coach of the girls' basketball team at New Mission High School, a Boston pilot school that won the 2007 state girls' basketball title. He can take girls places. Since McCarthy founded the team in 2004, he said, all of his players have gone to college. Now he was interested in Acia Johnson.

McCarthy, 31, approached Acia as she practiced jump shots after the game. Immediately, he liked her. Acia looked him in the eye. She had an edge, he thought, just like a lot of his girls - an edge that said to him, "If I have to, I'll defend myself." And it was clear, he said, that she yearned to be part of something.

"How do I win a state championship?" McCarthy said she asked.

Weeks later, the question still lingers in his ears. Most 14-year-olds don't ask him such things, he said, and he prodded Acia to consider New Mission. The problem, she told McCarthy, was that she already had plans for the fall. She had wanted to attend the Muriel S. Snowden International School, a public school in the Back Bay known for its academics, particularly its foreign language classes. Acia wanted to study French or Spanish, and just a week earlier, she had learned she was admitted. Academics, she had figured, was her way out.

But still, New Mission was worth considering. Acia would take the 14-page application that McCarthy gave her that day, just in case she decided to apply. Doors were opening.

Gavin's season ended badly. The team lost its last two games, finishing the year with a 1-7 record. At the same time, Acia's home life was becoming even worse - just days before her mother had gone after her brother with a hammer.

But Acia never talked about her problems at home, and Tang did not know about them when, after the final game, a 12-9 loss, the coach and player got into an uncharacteristic clash.

The girl wasn't listening as much anymore, Tang thought. Double-digit scoring seemed to be going to her head. In the parking lot at Gavin Middle School after the game, Tang pulled Acia aside for a talk. She was good, Tang told her, but she needed to stay humble. This was her chance: College, a full-ride scholarship, all that. But she needed to listen. She didn't know everything just yet.

In the weeks ahead, Acia would talk at length with Tang about her future and whether she was better off going to Snowden or New Mission.

Acia decided in early April to apply to New Mission. In the parking lot the night of the game, as Tang talked to her about humility, Acia just listened. The girl said she understood. She apologized and turned to make the short walk home. Then stopped.

"Miss Tang?" the teacher recalled Acia saying.

"What?" Tang replied.

"I love you."

***

A woman stood screaming on West Sixth Street at 2:30 a.m.

What happened next is now the centerpiece of a double-murder prosecution. By Anna's account - which could be disputed at trial but is supported by authorities - the tragedy began with her new lover, Nicole Chuminski, demanding to be let into the house. Anna said she lay in bed listening to Nicole holler in the night.

"How dare you steal money from my family," Anna said Nicole shouted.

Anna wasn't up for a fist fight, not that night. But she and Nicole had fought before. On Jan. 30, Anna said, she had beaten Nicole during an argument, and had an assault charge to show for it. When police carted her off to jail and she couldn't make bail, Acia, her brother, and little Sophia had to stay with family friends for nearly two weeks.

Still, Anna was in love. She and Nicole had struck up their romance on New Year's Eve, watching the ball drop in Times Square on television with the kids. Soon touching turned to kissing, and kissing turned to Nicole moving into the house.

She showered Anna with compliments, Anna said, calling her a goddess and doing more in three months for her self-esteem than any man had before, including Ray. But almost from the start, the kids didn't like her.

"They said she was no good," Anna recalled.

But Nicole stayed at the house, and on April 5, a Saturday, Anna accompanied Nicole to a wedding in Weymouth. They fought - this time over a wallet that guests accused Anna of stealing from one of Nicole's relatives, and they returned to Boston separately.

Then, Anna said, Nicole came to West Sixth Street and stood outside.

"Open the door," Nicole yelled, according to Anna.

Still drunk from the wedding, Anna recalls thinking, "I'll deal with her in the morning." She said she drifted off to sleep and the next thing she remembers was crackling.

Fire.

The blaze began in the front entryway. Nicole doused it with a flammable liquid, authorities say, and ignited it. Nicole has pleaded not guilty and denies that she was at the house when the blaze began.

Witnesses and fire officials say flames raced up the front of the house, curling out the front door, and up into the night. The fire devoured the first-floor living room, the second-floor bedrooms, and finally reached the third floor, where Acia and Sophia slept in a back room overlooking a vacant lot.

Acia had just had her first kiss with her favorite boy. Her application to New Mission High would be sitting on the coach's desk the next day. Her third-quarter report card was about to come back with straight A's.

The girls might have been somewhere else altogether, well out of reach of the fire, if state social workers had intervened, enforced the existing court order, or merely pressed harder to know why children who were supposed to be living somewhere else always seemed to be in that South Boston home. Twice in the previous two months alone, DSS officials had investigated neglect in the house - first in February when Sophia was found wandering the city streets alone, and then in March, when Anna chased Ray Jr. with a hammer.

Through the smoke, Anna said, she called upstairs for the girls, then rounded up Ray Jr. and the family dog on the first floor before hustling out the back door. She said she went back into the house and tried to go up the stairs but was overcome by smoke.

"I could hardly breathe," she said.

Outside, the taillights and headlights of cars parked on the street began to melt from the heat of the fire. The home's yellow siding melted away, too. And even though firefighters arrived at 3:21 a.m. - just three minutes after receiving word of the blaze - there was nothing they could do to reach the girls.

Acia and Sophia never came when their mother called for them. They did not hurry down the stairs through the smoke and flames and out the back door like their brother Ray. They stayed put, two girls alone in a house engulfed. And when Acia decided that she could neither jump from her third-floor window nor throw her sister to the people below, there was only one place to go.

Acia backed away from the window and retreated to her bedroom closet. And there, holed up together, she and Sophia died as the sirens wailed on West Sixth Street. The help they needed was just out of reach.

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com and Donovan Slack at dslack@globe.com.

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