Local News

http://www.charlotte.com/mld/observer/news/local/9368719.htm?1c

8-11-04

Children killed before fire


Parent slit throats, investigators say, before blaze gutted York County home

DAN HUNTLEY AND HEATHER VOGELL

Staff Writers

A victim is taken from the house Monday. We are now considering these deaths as potential homicides and the fire as suspicious,

LAYNE BAILEY/STAFF P HOTO

A victim is taken from the house Monday. "We are now considering these deaths as potential homicides and the fire as suspicious," said Capt. Glenn Williams of the York County Sheriff's Office.

 

ROCK HILL - At some point after 11:30 p.m. Sunday, investigators say either the father or the mother of Jairo, Denise and Denia Meza used a knife to slash their throats.

No screams were heard by neighbors. The children's bodies were carefully laid out on two beds in the master bedroom. A combustible liquid was splashed around the room and ignited.

This is what investigators say happened at 4053 Crestview Drive late Sunday or early Monday, based on physical evidence and more than a dozen interviews with neighbors, friends and family members.

Neighbors were awakened by a 3 a.m. "commotion followed by a bang, like soft thunder," which was probably a buildup of heat that blew out the front window. A pilot light to a hot water heater may have also caused a small explosion.

Authorities said the children's parents -- Denis Meza, 39, and Marbely Meza, 30 -- died from smoke inhalation and burns in the fire. Their bodies were found on the floor in the bedroom with the children. No one had attempted to flee the fire zone. Marbely Meza had knife wounds that could have incapacitated her, but authorities are not yet able to tell which parent killed the children.

Because the bodies were so badly burned, as of late Tuesday, only one person had been positively identified -- Denis Meza, through his fingerprints. York County authorities had taken his prints earlier this summer when he was charged with sexually abusing his 14-year-old daughter, Denia, since she was 10. He was to appear in court Monday.

"There's no two ways about it: These little children were murdered, and that's a terrible crime," said York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant. "We further believe that the murderer died in the fire."

Bryant said evidence was still being processed and it was too early to determine exactly what happened.

"At this point we have no reason to believe it is not the Meza family; everything seems to point in that direction, but with the bodies so badly burned you just can't say until they can complete the DNA tests or dental records," Bryant said. "What we have is five dead people. Is it a straight murder or a murder-suicide? We just can't say at this point."

York County Coroner Doug McKown confirmed the children -- believed to be Jairo, 5; Denise, 8; and Denia, 14 -- died from "massive blood loss from having their throats cut." A knife stained with a dark substance was found near their bodies. He said the woman had a knife slash on her wrist, which could be a "defensive wound."

McKown said it would be several days before DNA tests would be completed to positively identify the other four bodies.

The Meza family is from Nicaragua ; they have lived in the Charlotte area since the early '90s. Friends say Denis Meza, a heavy-set landscaper, underwent a transformation in recent years -- one that is at odds with his behavior in recent weeks.

Noradino Montes, a friend of the family who lives in Rock Hill , said he found out about the deaths Monday night afte r r eturning from Mexico .

He said Meza had changed since they met about 12 years ago. Back then, Meza wasn't religious, Montes said. He would drink a little and occasionally curse.

"When he got to this religion, he changed," Montes said. "He stopped saying bad words; he stopped drinking." He began dressing better, too, Montes said.

In the mid '90s, Meza took a trip to Nicaragua and came back with his wife and oldest daughter.

The family was involved in a Spanish-speaking congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, friends said. Montes said the Mezas hosted Bible studies in their former Fort Mill home on Thursdays.

Montes said Meza worked weekdays and gave all his free time to the church.

Montes said he didn't know Meza's wife well. He said he had visited the couple in their Rock Hill home only twice, but "every time I saw them they were kind to each other."

A representative with the Spanish-language Rock Hill Congregation Salon Del Reino, a denomination of Jehovah's Witnesses, said Tuesday that the church did not wish to comment on the Meza family now.

Marbely Meza spoke little English and apparently did not work outside of the home.

Friends say she was a devoted mother. Three times a week, she would take her children to buy cheese and tortillas at the Tortilleria Linda Lupita on Mount Gallant Road in Rock Hill , said owner P hyllis Cristo.

Cristo said she didn't know the wife and daughter well enough to say much more than, "Hi, how are you?" though sometimes Denia would talk about Nicaragua .

"She was a lovely lady and the daughter was adorable," Cristo said. "Never would I have guessed that they were suffering .... It breaks my heart."

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THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

GIRL IN FIRE HAD BEEN RAPED
CORONER SAYS 14-YEAR-OLD WHOSE SIBLINGS ALSO DIED HAD SIGNS OF SEX ASSAULT
INVESTIGATORS HAVEN'T IDENTIFIED ATTACKER; FATHER HAD BEEN CHARGED WITH ABUSING DAUGHTER

Thursday, August 12, 2004
Section: METRO
Edition: THREE
Page: 1B
DAN HUNTLEY , HEATHER VOGELL, Staff Writers
Illustration: GRAPHIC:1 PHOTO:1

Caption: Jose Denis Meza

Dateline: ROCK HILL

A 14-year-old girl who was murdered before her house burned Monday had been raped in the past week, investigators said Wednesday.

York County coroner Doug McKown confirmed Wednesday that Denia Meza had injuries consistent with a recent sexual assault.

"We're narrowing down the

ti mel ine, but it appears the assault took place within several days of her death," said McKown.

He said additional tests were being conducted to determine if a DNA sample was present that could be linked to her attacker.

Also Wednesday, the bodies of Denia and Denise, 8, were positively identified through dental records. Investigators are still working to identify the bodies of an adult female, believed to be the mother, Marbely Meza , 30, and her 5-year-old son, Jairo.

The children died after their throats were slashed early Sunday or late Monday at 4053 Crestview Drive . Investigators say the father, Jose Denis Meza , 39, and the adult female died of smoke inhalation.

Denia's father had been charged July 16 with sexually abusing his daughter. The court had ordered him to have no contact with his daughter. However, neighbors say he continued to visit the house at 4053 Crestview Drive , including Sunday around 10:30 a.m. His truck was found in the driveway the morning after the fire.

The S.C. Department of Social Services first reported the abuse allegation to the sheriff's department May 3 after receiving a tip.

DSS general counsel Virginia Williamson said Wednesday that she couldn't say how many times a caseworker had visited the family since May, or whether the children had received physical screenings for abuse or psychological counseling.

"That picture isn't clearly put together yet for me," she said.

Williamson said a department investigator would interview county DSS staff and law enforcement about the case. An internal committee will review the findings.

Investigators are still trying to determine which of the two adults slashed the children's throats at the rental home just south of Lake Wylie .

The female adult had a knife cut on her wrist that could have been a defensive wound, McKown said. Denia Meza also had wounds that could be termed "defensive." McKown said the two other children had no other wounds and were not sexually assaulted.

The children, dressed in street clothes, appear to have been placed in two beds in the master bedroom. The adults were found on the floor in the same room. None of the victims was bound, and neither of the adults was attempting to escape the fire at the time of their deaths.

Investigators say they cannot rule out either of the adults as the murderer.

"What we can say is we believe the killer also died in the fire," said Capt. Glenn Williams of the York County Sheriff's Department.

When asked what evidence supports the theory that one of the parents killed the children, Williams replied, "I can't go into that evidence right now, but let's just say we do not believe the public's safety is at risk. There is no killer on the loose."

 

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THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

VICTIMS' FAMILIES DISPUTE BLAME
RELATIVES WORKING TO BRING BODIES TO
NICARAGUA FOR BURIAL

Saturday, August 14, 2004
Section: METRO
Edition: THREE
Page: 1B
STAFF WRITERS, DAN HUNTLEY , DANICA COTO, STAFF WRITERS
Illustration: PHOTO:2

Caption: 1. M. Meza 2. Denis Meza

Dateline: ROCK HILL

The deaths of the Meza family in York County are making headlines in Nicaragua where the mothers of the slain adults are arguing about who committed the crime.

In Friday's edition of El Nuevo Diario, a newspaper in Managua , the front page had opposing photos of Orfa Molinares Munguia - mother of Marbely Meza - and Dona Teodolinda Meza - mother of Denis Meza . Above Meza's photo, the headline says "Mi hijo no fue" ("It wasn't my son.")

 

The five-member Meza family died early Monday. The three children, Jairo, 5; Denise, 8; and Denia, 14, died after having their throats slashed before their home was destroyed by fire. The parents died from smoke inhalation and burns in the fire at 4053 Crestview Drive . Marbely Meza , 30, had a cut on her wrist that may have been a defensive knife wound. Investigators are awaiting toxicological test results they hope will point to the killer.

York County Coroner Doug McKown said Friday that one of the tests will determine if any member of the Meza family was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol.

"We don't have any indication that any members of the family were incapacitated prior to their deaths," McKown said. "But it's something we're looking into, particularly with these children whose throats were cut."

Another test will determine if DNA evidence shows the identity of the person who raped Denia within five days of her death.

Sheriff's deputies arrested Denis Meza , 39, on July 16 on charges of sexually molesting Denia. He was ordered to move out of the house and was scheduled to appear in court Monday.

McKown also said Friday that the bodies of Marbely Meza and the children had been turned over to Greene Funeral Home in Rock Hill , but the father's body was still being held for someone to claim him. Greene officials said they're awaiting word from Marbely Meza's brother, Ariel Zeledon, on whether the four will be buried in Rock Hill or returned to Central America . Marbely's mother said Thursday that she plans to bring the family home to Matagalpa , Nicaragua , to be buried in a family cemetery plot.

In the Nicaraguan newspaper, Denis Meza's mother said he couldn't have committed the crime because he was a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses church.

Teodolinda Meza added that she had been able to speak to her son only twice in the nine years he had been in the States because she doesn't have a phone.

She is asking the Nicaraguan government to bring back her son's body, because she doesn't have $1,500 for the trip and other expenses.

Zeledon family members said Orfa Molinares Munguia had left Managua on Friday morning for the United States and was expected to land late Friday but was experiencing flight delays getting to Charlotte because of Hurricane Charley in Florida . She expects to stay in Rock Hill for about a month, family members say.

Some family members of Marbely Meza in Nicaragua on Friday said they're not ready to blame Denis Meza .

Let the investigators determine who's at fault, said her father, Rosenberg Castillo Raiytes, 42, from his home in Matagalpa , Nicaragua .

Raiytes said Denis Meza was a good person.

"Well-mannered, hard worker and very honest," he said. "I don't have anything against Denis or Teodolinda (his mother)."

But newspaper accounts in Nicaragua say Marbely Meza's mother, Orfa Molinares Munguia, felt differently.

She approached Teodolinda Meza after the incident and told her, "Do you realize what your son did. He killed my daughter and my grandchildren!" according to one newspaper.

When Raiytes was told about the deaths earlier this week, he contacted Teodolinda Meza .

"She was stricken and very sad," Raiytes said. "We didn't talk much because she was very traumatized."

Alicia Herrera Rivas, a close friend of Teodolinda Meza , who lives in Matagalpa, said Meza was hurt after hearing the news.

Her son was popular back home - he was a Sandinista fighter for five years and was even sent to Cuba for military training, Rivas said. After the war, he worked two years as an administrator with the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security and Well-Being.

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THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

WHERE WERE WE?
A SEXUALLY ABUSED TEEN CRIED OUT FOR HELP. SHE WANTED SAFETY. NOW, SHE'S DEAD.
I'VE HEARD HEAVEN
HOLDS A SPECIAL PLACE FOR A SLAIN CHILD. I PRAY THERE IS A FIERY, ETERNAL RING OF HELL FOR THE ADULT KILLER.

Friday, August 20, 2004
Section: YORK
Edition: THREE
Page: 1Y
DAN HUNTLEY , Staff Writer
Column: Commentary * Dan Huntley

Illustration: PHOTO:3

Caption: 1. LAYNE BAILEY - STAFF PHOTO . Denia Meza shares a moment with her little brother Jayro in this charred family photograph. ; 2. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ZELEDON FAMILY . Denia Meza swings at age 5 in Nicaragua . 3. Denia in a photo charred from the house fire

Today, 14-year-old Denia Meza should be chatting with her girlfriends, twisting her hair and making her way to math class at Rawlinson Road Middle School .

But she's being "laid to rest" alongside her killer in a family burial plot in Rock Hill .

Officials will say only that one of her parents killed her. They're withholding judgment about who is responsible until all the lab results are in.

What they do know is this: Her father, Jose Denis Meza , was arrested on charges of sexually abusing her; he died seven days before he was to appear in court; Denia was raped within five days of her death, perhaps the same night; Denis had no defensive wounds on his body; and Denia and her mother, Marbely, both had knife wounds on their arms, which could be defensive.

Eleven days ago about 10 a.m., I stood by Denia's back yard fence and watched a coroner's team remove her tiny body from her blackened home - filling one of the five body bags carefully laid out like flags in the back yard between the trampoline and swing set.

The Meza children - Jayro, 5; Denise, 8; and Denia - had their throats slashed and died before the fire. Marbely and Denis Meza died of smoke inhalation and burns. For some people, the end of the Meza family tragedy will be when the gravedigger tamps down the last shovel full of red dirt over these five humps of earth.

No one will ever stand trial for the deaths of these children, and their story will soon disappear from the headlines. I'd like to think it's not because they're a low-income Hispanic family with little roots in our community and their deaths are mostly being written off as "some kind of sick, domestic squabble."

This was the largest apparent murder-suicide that anyone can remember in York County . Yet, where is the outrage for the deaths of these innocent children?

Who is demanding justice for these kids? Where is the minister from the Meza family's church? Where are the elected officials demanding some agency be held accountable for how this volatile case was handled?

Responsibility for this tragedy extends beyond the convenient whipping boy of the chronically understaffed Department of Social Services, which is alternately criticized for acting too quickly in removing children from their biological parents and placing them in foster homes, and when they don't.

Maybe the agency had good reasons for not removing Denia and her siblings from this household, after allegations of sexual abuse first surfaced three months ago. Perhaps, some day, DSS will make that information public.

Granted, it's practically impossible for anyone to have predicted the white-hot violence that engulfed the Meza household the night of Aug. 8.

We prefer not to think about it.

Even family members like Lou dan ia Pao:

"I try not think too much about what happened in Marbely's house before it was set on fire," she said.

"It's just too much badness to fit in your mind at one time.... when I think of Denia and what she must have been going through, I have to stop myself."

But the warning signs were plentiful.

This young girl, according to a Sheriff's incident report, had been sexually abused by her father as early as age 10. Denia and her mother moved here from Nicaragua a decade ago, and her mother spoke little English. Marbely Meza had few job skills and appeared to be entirely dependent on her husband to support their growing family. Marbely's mother, her closest family and her friends said she told them nothing about the abuse allegations.

Nor did they know that Denis had been forced to move out of the home. In May, this child who in the past year had shorn her hip-long hair to mark her passage into adolescence - or a signal of something darker - gathered her courage and told someone.

That person notified DSS and, in turn, the Sheriff's Office.

Two months later, Denis Meza was arrested.

He was ordered to move out of the house and have no contact with Denia.

Denia had done the right thing - an unspeakable evil had entered her bedroom and like a good girl, she'd told the authorities.

Her mistake was putting her trust in adults who would not or could not keep her safe.

The evil returned.

Neighbors say the former Sandinista fighter came back to his home after moving out, sometimes meeting his wife in the parking lot of a nearby fish camp, sometimes entering the house.

The adults who knew about the abuse say they had to keep it confidential to protect the family.

The adults closest to Denia - the ones who could have really protected her from further assaults - never knew of the abuse allegations.

Her Uncle Ariel, who helped raise Denia and considered her one of his own, might have saved her.

But he was never told.

The neighbors, who saw Denis come and go at the house after his arrest, were never told.

When a child like Denia is threatened in our community, we need to all come to her aid - church, school, DSS, the media, law enforcement, neighbors and family.

Denia's mistake was not in speaking out, but in believing that her community would protect her.

She then suffered the ultimate form of abuse - her own death.

As a community, we followed Standard Operating Procedure: we filed the paperwork, arrested the father and ordered him out of the house until the trial - "Next case."

We did everything but the follow-up that could have kept this child alive.

The authorities will determine who killed Denia, but we don't need a DNA test to know who is responsible for her death.

*

Call Dan Huntley with story ideas at (803) 327-8508 or e-mail dhuntley@charlotteobserver.com .

The funeral

The funeral of the five-member Meza family will be held today at 2 p.m. at Greene Funeral Home Northwest Chapel at 2133 Ebenezer Road in Rock Hill , with burial to follow at Forest Hills Cemetery .

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http://www.charlotte.com/mld/charlotte/news/columnists/dan_huntley/9448216.htm

Posted on Fri, Aug. 20, 2004

COMMENTARY

It's everyone's duty to protect children

DAN HUNTLEY

Abused teen cried out for help.

Now, she's dead. Where were we? I've heard heaven holds a special place for a slain child.

I pray there is a fiery, eternal ring of hell for the adult killer.

Today, 14-year-old Denia Meza should be chatting with her girlfriends, twisting her hair and making her way to math class at Rawlinson Road Middle School .

But she's being "laid to rest" alongside her killer in a family burial plot in Rock Hill .

Officials will say only that one of her parents killed her. They're withholding judgment about who is responsible until all the lab results are in.

What they do know is this: Her father, Jose Denis Meza, was arrested on charges of sexually abusing her; he died seven days before he was to appear in court; Denia was raped within five days of her death, perhaps the same night; Denis had no defensive wounds on his body; and Denia and her mother, Marbely, both had knife wounds on their arms, which could be defensive.

Eleven days ago about 10 a.m., I stood by Denia's backyard fence and watched a coroner's team remove her tiny body from her blackened home -- filling one of the five body bags carefully laid out like flags in the back yard between the trampoline and swing set.

The Meza children -- Jayro, 5; Denise, 8; and Denia -- had their throats slashed and died before the fire. Marbely and Denis Meza died of smoke inhalation and burns. For some people, the end of the Meza family tragedy will be when the gravedigger tamps down the last shovel full of red dirt over these five humps of earth.

No one will ever stand trial for the deaths of these children, and their story will soon disappear from the headlines. I'd like to think it's not because they're a low-income Hispanic family with little roots in our community and their deaths are mostly being written off as "some kind of sick, domestic squabble."

This was the largest apparent murder-suicide that anyone can remember in York County . Yet, where is the outrage for the deaths of these innocent children?

Who is demanding justice for these kids? Where is the minister from the Meza family's church? Where are the elected officials demanding some agency be held accountable for how this volatile case was handled?

Responsibility for this tragedy extends beyond the convenient whipping boy of the chronically understaffed Department of Social Services, which is alternately criticized for acting too quickly in removing children from their biological parents and placing them in foster homes, and when they don't.

Maybe the agency had good reasons for not removing Denia and her siblings from this household, after allegations of sexual abuse first surfaced three months ago. Perhaps, some day, DSS will make that information public.

Granted, it's practically impossible for anyone to have predicted the white-hot violence that engulfed the Meza household the night of Aug. 8.

We prefer not to think about it.

Even family members like Lou dan ia Pao:

"I try not think too much about what happened in Marbely's house before it was set on fire," she said.

"It's just too much badness to fit in your mind at one time.... when I think of Denia and what she must have been going through, I have to stop myself."

But the warning signs were plentiful.

This young girl, according to a Sheriff's incident report, had been sexually abused by her father as early as age 10. Denia and her mother moved here from Nicaragua a decade ago, and her mother spoke little English. Marbely Meza had few job skills and appeared to be entirely dependent on her husband to support their growing family. Marbely's mother, her closest family and her friends said she told them nothing about the abuse allegations.

Nor did they know that Denis had been forced to move out of the home. In May, this child who in the past year had shorn her hip-long hair to mark her passage into adolescence -- or a signal of something darker -- gathered her courage and told someone.

That person notified DSS and, in turn, the Sheriff's Office.

Two months later, Denis Meza was arrested.

He was ordered to move out of the house and have no contact with Denia.

Denia had done the right thing -- an unspeakable evil had entered her bedroom and like a good girl, she'd told the authorities.

Her mistake was putting her trust in adults who would not or could not keep her safe.

The evil returned.

Neighbors say the former Sandinista fighter came back to his home after moving out, sometimes meeting his wife in the parking lot of a nearby fish camp, sometimes entering the house.

The adults who knew about the abuse say they had to keep it confidential to protect the family.

The adults closest to Denia -- the ones who could have really protected her from further assaults -- never knew of the abuse allegations.

Her Uncle Ariel, who helped raise Denia and considered her one of his own, might have saved her.

But he was never told.

The neighbors, who saw Denis come and go at the house after his arrest, were never told.

When a child like Denia is threatened in our community, we need to all come to her aid -- church, school, DSS, the media, law enforcement, neighbors and family.

Denia's mistake was not in speaking out, but in believing that her community would protect her.

She then suffered the ultimate form of abuse -- her own death.

As a community, we followed Standard Operating Procedure: we filed the paperwork, arrested the father and ordered him out of the house until the trial -- "Next case."

We did everything but the follow-up that could have kept this child alive.

The authorities will determine who killed Denia, but we don't need a DNA test to know who is responsible for her death.

The Funeral

The funeral of the five-member Meza family will be held today at 2 p.m. at Greene Funeral Home Northwest Chapel at 2133 Ebenezer Road in Rock Hill , with burial to follow at Forest Hills Cemetery . DETAILS | Funeral of the five-member Meza family today | 12B Dan

Huntley

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http://www.charlotte.com/mld/charlotte/news/local/9458360.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp

Posted on Sat, Aug. 21, 2004

Teen loved America , says teacher
Denia Meza was laid to rest with her family, all found dead on Aug. 9
NICHOLE MONROE BELL
Staff Writer

ROCK HILL - Denia Meza cherished the little things.

Every week, she raved in her journal at school -- sometimes it was getting new clothes or sometimes it was eating at a restaurant. For Denia, life in America was filled with comforts she never knew in her native Nicaragua .

"Even though I was her teacher, I learned many lessons from Denia," Denise Pagoota said while giving the eulogy during Denia's funeral Friday. "She was like any other teenager. ... She complained about school, she complained about homework. But you could always count on her starting her diary with, `This was the best weekend of my life.' "

Denia, 14, and her family were found dead Aug. 9 after a fire at their Rock Hill home.

The five family members were buried Friday in three caskets. Denia was buried with her 8-year-old sister, Denise Meza. Beside them a second casket holds the bodies of her mother, Marbely Meza, and 5-year-old brother, Jayro. On the other side of Marbely is Denia's father, Jose Denis Meza, buried alone. The caskets holding the bodies of the mother and children were adorned with floral arrangements. Denis Meza's casket was bare.

Representatives from both families agreed that they be buried together in a family plot and where each casket would go.

"We wanted to remember them as a family," Denis Meza's cousin, Santos Virgilio Meza, said in Spanish through a translator. "They were a family."

Investigators are still trying to determine what happened. They say the children died after their throats were cut, and the parents died of smoke inhalation, but are still waiting on tests that might indicate which of the parents killed the children. Tests have shown that Denia was raped within five days of her death. Her father was previously charged with molesting her.

About 50 people attended the family's funeral, which was held in English and Spanish. Several of those attending were teachers or counselors. Some relatives were unable to come from Nicaragua to attend, family members said.

Pagoota, who was Denia's English as a second language teacher, said Denia was optimistic about her life in America , despite the prejudice she said she experienced here. Pagoota challenged those attending to look at their own prejudices and overcome them.

"At one time, we were all immigrants to this country," she said. "While some people are different, it's those differences that make us unique."

"Look at the people who are here today," Pagoota said. "Today, language and cultural differences don't matter."