Illinois Arson Suspect Charged With Murder of 5 Kids

A parolee was charged Monday and jailed without bond in the deaths of five children killed in a weekend house fire that authorities say the suspect intentionally set over a dispute that apparently began at a nightclub.

Adams County State's Attorney Jon Barnard charged Zachary Q. Meeks, 27, with 15 murder counts -- three for each of the five dead children, who ranged in age from 10 years to five months. Meeks also is accused of arson and aggravated arson, the latter charge alleging Meeks knew or should have known people were inside the home when the fire began.

Barnard said he would decide later whether to seek the death penalty against Meeks, who was paroled from an Illinois prison in December after serving time in a drug case.

The death penalty "is something that has to be (considered) in a case like this. It's on the table until we take it off," Barnard told The Associated Press on Monday after Meeks made his first court appearance. "I don't think you'll find words to describe the magnitude of something like this" tragedy.

A judge ordered that Ed Downey, Adams County's chief public defender, represent Meeks. A message left Monday with Downey was not immediately returned.

Barnard would not publicly discuss why Meeks may have set the fire early Sunday, saying only that the blaze appeared to be connected to a disturbance earlier that night at a local nightclub. He declined to elaborate, saying "it's not appropriate to comment on the evidence."

The children's aunt, Michelle Gavin, told WGEM-TV in Quincy that Meeks poured gas on the front of her sister's house and set it on fire while the children's parents, Jeanette and Keith Clark, were down the street.

There was no telephone listing Monday in Quincy for Michelle Gavin.

The fire injured four other people, including the children's parents who tried in vain to save the youngsters.

Keith Clark was in good condition Monday at Springfield's Memorial Medical Center, a hospital spokeswoman said. The three others had been treated and released.

By the time firefighters responded to the fire, the two-story brick house was engulfed in flames. Neighbors said flames were shooting out the windows, and firefighters said they could see smoke from at least a quarter-mile away.

The four boys and one girl were found on the second floor of the house -- three of the victims in bedrooms, two of them in the bathroom, coroner Gary Hamilton said.

He identified the children as Kendall Edwards, 10; Althea Clark, 9; Camron Clark, 5; Khalil Clark, 3, and Kejuan Clark, five months.

Autopsies were scheduled for Monday, Hamilton said.

Meeks was to appear in court Tuesday for a hearing over whether he would be eligible for bond. Barnard said he would push for Meeks to remain jailed pending trial, and the state already has asked that Meeks be held for possibly violating his parole.

Derek Schnapp, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said Meeks was released from an Illinois prison in July 2003 after serving time for an Adams County aggravated battery conviction. Meeks then was sentenced in 2005 to four years behind bars on a drug conviction before being freed last December, with his parole to run through December 2008, Schnapp said.

Messages left Monday with Quincy police were not immediately returned.