Owner skeptical that wiring sparked group home fire

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

JOPLIN, Mo. -- The owner of a Southwest Missouri group home where 10 people died in a fire last week said he was skeptical of comments by investigators that faulty wiring may have caused the blaze.

Robert Dupont, 62, also denied that he is an operator of the home under the state definition of that term, an issue that has arisen since fire gutted the Anderson Guest House Nov. 27. Dupont has a conviction for Medicare fraud, and state law bars him from being the "principal" or "operator" of a home, although not from owning one.

Speaking to The Associated Press at his Joplin home, Dupont said he owned the land and building that burned, but that the home was operated by Joplin River of Life Ministries, where his wife is executive director.

Dupont said he works in various jobs for the ministry, which also runs three other group homes for the mentally ill in Southwest Missouri. He was not specific about what jobs he does.

"I participate in all of it. I've got 20 years of experience, why would I hide that? And my wife and I own all the buildings," he said.

"I'm on probation. Before I even left prison, I told them what I would be doing. My parole officer comes to visit me at the office. The state agencies that inspect us know what I do. I'm not sneaking around hiding anything," Dupont said.

He said previous state inspections had found no problems with the wiring in the attic of the Anderson Guest House.

Investigators said the fire, which started overnight in the unfinished attic of the single-story home, was possibly caused by faulty wiring. They said they may never know for sure, since all the evidence was likely lost in the blaze.

But Dupont said he believed a more likely cause was a mattress fire that blackened a sleeping room several days before the fatal blaze.

Dupont said he believed that embers from that fire could have gotten into the attic and smoldered in the insulation, sparking the fatal fire.

"Nobody knows that there was faulty wiring. They say they have suspicions, but nobody knows it," he said.

"I guarantee you it went through inspections and there was no problem."

The Anderson home was a residential care center licensed by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

In March, the department cited the home for grease buildup in the kitchen, uncovered fluorescent light fixtures, allowing meat to thaw on the kitchen counter instead of in a refrigerator, allowing a resident to take more than the prescribed dose of an inhaler and not requesting criminal background checks as quickly as required by law for new two new employees. All of the deficiencies were corrected within three weeks, according to the health department.

Asked why he or someone from River of Life didn't inspect the attic for embers after the mattress fire, Dupont said the fire department never advised them to.

"Hindsight is 100 percent," he said.

Dupont said he will remain in the business of running homes for the mentally ill.

He said he hopes the fire will prompt lawmakers to find more state money to pay for safety improvements at residential homes, although he said the Anderson home was a "good quality building and facility".

"My job and my heart is dealing with the mentally ill and that's what I'm going to continue to do," he said.

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