Complex resident admits starting fire that killed 2

By David Webb Staff Writer

Gay HIV caregiver’s neighbor charged with capital murder; suspect allegedly set fire to sofa in hall



Percy Ernest Hill

A 21-year-old man was charged with capital murder this week in connection with the arson at an Oak Lawn apartment complex that killed a gay HIV caregiver and one other unidentified person.

Percy Ernest Hill, who also lived at the apartment complex, is being held in the Lew Sterrett Justice Center in lieu of $500,000 bond.

He confessed to starting the fire by lighting a piece of paper and placing it in a cardboard box on a sofa that was left in a hallway, according to Joel Lavender, a spokesman for Dallas Fire-Rescue. Two witnesses corroborated his statements to police.

The seven-alarm fire on March 11 at Harvey’s Racquet Club apartments in West Oak Lawn killed Marion Roberts, 41, who had worked for AIDS Resources of Dallas for four years. Roberts was believed to have just ended his work shift and gone home when the fire started.

Don Maison, executive director of AIDS Services of Dallas, said the news that Roberts had died as the result of such a foolish act has worsened and prolonged the sadness of the facility’s residents and employees.

“I was real sad to hear someone had set this fire,” Maison said.

“To know someone recklessly or carelessly set this building on fire makes it seem like even more of a waste of human life.”

Maison described Roberts as a compassionate man who was adored by the residents and his co-workers.
“I don’t know to what extent retribution by capital punishment is going to resolve anything,” Maison said. “We’ve lost a great employee and a friend.”

Another body was found in the rubble of the fire, but it has not yet been identified. Another resident, Maria Chavez, has been reported missing.

The fire at the 32-year-old complex caused $3 million in damage and injured 16 people, including several who jumped from upper floors in the three-story structure to escape the inferno. Two of the injured a 25-year-old man and a 54-year-old man remained in the hospital this week suffering from fractures, internal injuries and burns.

Roberts, who suffered from asthma, was last heard from when he called his sister shortly after the fire started to ask her advice about jumping from his third-floor apartment. Roberts lived with a roommate who wasn’t at home at the time of the fire.

Fire officials said the complex’s structure, which included long hallways with apartments on either side, contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

E-mail webb@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 30, 2007

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