Two charged in murder attempt

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Billie Davis woke up around 2:30 a.m. June 17 surrounded by smoke, fire and, police would later claim, a daughter's betrayal.

Davis tried to put out the blaze, but she couldn't. Her crippled knees carried her through the smoke and between the flames.

Neighbors guess that Davis crawled down the stairs, through the kitchen and into the garage. She stopped in the garage, unable to go any farther. She was too weak to walk through the open garage door just a few feet away.

Desperate, the middle-aged Jackson woman lay on the garage floor and screamed for help. Her wails grabbed the attention of Alex Thiele, 15, who was surfing the Internet in his bedroom across the street. Alex ran to get his father, and the two ran quickly across the street and pulled Davis out of the smoky garage.

Davis was burned slightly, but she survived the fire.

She didn't know at the time that she survived her daughter's alleged murder attempt as well.

Jackson police announced Monday the arrests of two Jackson women for a class A felony of first-degree arson, and class B felonies of attempted murder and first-degree burglary. One of the women, Tara Y. McClanahan, 33, is Davis' daughter. The other is Juanita Holderbaugh, 28, a friend of McClanahan's. Both Jackson women are being held on $300,000 bonds in the Cape Girardeau County Jail.

Originally, the fire's cause was ruled "undetermined." But the Jackson Police Department's investigation of forgery, including checks forged on Davis' account, led them to evidence suggesting more serious crimes.

Police declined to provide specifics Monday, but chief James Humphreys said the motive for the alleged crime was inheritance money.

The police contend that the suspects not only intentionally set the fire but also were aware that Davis was sleeping in the room at the time. A probable-cause affidavit stated that one of the women admitted to setting the blaze with a candle and told police of the other's involvement. The document said the women set the bed and curtains on fire.

Law enforcement sources said the reason the alleged crime was able to go undetected for a while is that no accelerant was used. Since Davis was a smoker, the fire didn't initially arouse suspicions.

Fire marshal Butch Amann said the first-glance evidence suggested the fire was accidental, but the accidental causes were eliminated.

Jackson fire captain Steve Grant, who lives in the neighborhood and rushed to the scene, said three potential causes were initially noted:

Davis is a smoker and an ashtray was in the area;

There was an oil lamp nearby;

An extension cord was pinched under the bed.

However, investigators eliminated all three causes.

"It was set deliberately to make it look accidental," Amann said. He said he interviewed Davis and asked her several questions, including if there was something in the room that normally wouldn't have been there or something that should have been there that wasn't. Through that process, "we were able to eliminate accidental cause," he said.

Amann, citing an ongoing investigation, would not release further details.

Left with a relative

Neighbors said Davis has not been living at her smoke- and water-damaged home since the fire occurred. They said she left with a relative, but they did not know where she is staying.

Neighbor Teresa Brown said Davis told her she tried to put the fire out first, then fled once she realized she couldn't, becoming somewhat disoriented in the kitchen. Afterward, Davis told Brown she was worried about a gun and medication that couldn't be found.

Brown said Davis had lived in the house for about six months before the fire. "She had surgery on her knees and had difficulty walking. We hardly ever saw her outside."

Brown and others recall McClanahan rushing to the scene around 3:30 a.m. and being "shocked" and "upset."

"I stayed up all night, and her daughter came around," said Alex Thiele. "She sounded really shocked."

One neighbor, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said McClanahan told her Davis was "never the same" after suffering a brain aneurysm 18 years ago and that "she would drop a cigarette and forget that she dropped it." The neighbor said McClanahan mentioned sending Davis to a nursing home.

Another neighbor said several children visited Davis' home on the weekends.

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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