The building wasn’t insured. The windows were boarded up. There were no smoke detectors. And the power had been cut off.
Still, the owner of a Provo apartment complex — who once called the place a “death trap” — rented out the property. And now he has been charged with the death of one of the tenants who was killed there by a fire in June.
Kelly Taylor Ellis, 65, faces a felony count of manslaughter, as well as a handful of misdemeanors including reckless endangerment and violation of safety regulations. Prosecutors say he also broke the law when converting the structure from a video store into housing without getting the proper licensing.
“He knew the building was unsafe,” said Provo Fire Battalion Chief Lynn Schofield at a Wednesday news conference broadcast by FOX13. “He had been denied insurance coverage.”
Additionally, the landlord, Homer Workman, 69, faces the same charges. He was aware of the issues, Schofield said, and continued to accept rent from the tenants.
Crews responded to a fire at the building, located at 1455 S. State St., early on the morning of June 1. Donna Clegg, 48, was found dead inside.
She was living in the home with her ex-husband, who managed to escape. But Clegg was trapped inside. The door into her room opened only about 10 to 12 inches, Schofield said, and she couldn’t get out through the windows, which were boarded up.
Clegg and her ex-husband had been using candles to light the apartment after Workman had the electricity shut off three days earlier. Fire crews believe either those or a cigarette butt started the blaze.
Workman had told city employees that he wanted to cut power because he had squatters on the property, according to a probable cause statement. They told him he had to fill out paperwork in order to evict them. He never did.
The city said it had been working with Ellis and Workman since 2012 to address the space “to bring the property up to standard” and granted them a conditional permit. “But the improvements were never made,” the charging documents state. Workman, who had been living there, moved out and leased it to Clegg with Ellis’ approval.
Both knew there were no smoke alarms and were “aware that the building was too high a risk to be insured.” Ellis, officers say, had previously called the place a “tinderbox” and a “death trap,” but it’s unclear when he said that or to whom, according to the probable cause statement. A prior building he owned, according to the statement, burned down two years earlier; it also was not insured.
Ellis could not immediately be reached for a response Wednesday night. Workman declined to comment. In an unusual move this early in a case, prosecutors have offered an alternative charge of negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor, in place of manslaughter, a second-degree felony.
Karleen Holland, representing Clegg’s daughters, said the family “hopes these charges will bring answers and hope for closure.”
“Donna was a loving mother, grandmother, sister and friend,” Holland said. “She will be missed by many.”