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Landlord hit with rare charge in monoxide deaths

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

TOLEDO, Ohio -- On their last night together, Tammy McDaniel and her three children nuzzled under blankets in the living room of their shabby rental home, warmed by a space heater powered by a portable generator in the kitchen.

McDaniel's relatives had no idea her new place didn't have heat or electricity -- until the next morning, when her landlord found all four dead from carbon monoxide fumes.

The landlord, Steven Snow, is charged with four reckless homicide counts, highlighting the increasing accountability being put on building owners whose tenants live in dangerous conditions. Nearly half of all states now have laws requiring property owners to install detectors for the deadly gas.

Investigators in Ohio say Snow didn't intend to harm anyone but knew the dangers of running a generator when he gave it to the family in the rental home near downtown Toledo. He also removed it from the house before police arrived, they said.

Snow has pleaded not guilty and could face 20 years in prison if convicted. A judge on Monday postponed a pretrial hearing because Snow's attorney was sick.

Snow insists that McDaniel told him she was at the house March 22 waiting for the electricity to be turned on and that he dropped off the generator to warm the place up temporarily. He said the day of his indictment that he didn't know she planned to stay overnight.

"All I was trying to do was to give them a better house and a better place," Snow said.

Family members of McDaniel say Snow knows he made a mistake and needs to be held accountable.

"Tammy didn't make the right decision, and she paid the ultimate price," said McDaniel's sister Tonia Wertz. "We don't want him on death row, but he has to hold some responsibility."

McDaniel lived paycheck to paycheck, washing dishes at a restaurant part-time so she could keep her nights free to take care of her children -- Damien Reyes, 18; Domonique Reyes, 16; and Taralynn Wood, 10. She didn't own a car so she rode the bus to work.

They didn't have a lot, neighbors said, but the children always had coats and gloves in the winter.

Snow bought the house in December and was fixing it up because it had been vacant for a couple of years. Boards were nailed over broken windows in the back, and thieves had stripped off some of the aluminum siding.

Still, McDaniel told friends it was just what she needed for a fresh start after breaking up with her longtime boyfriend. They had been living together and she could no longer pay the rent when he moved out.

So Snow offered his rental home even though he wasn't finished with the repairs and the utilities weren't hooked up yet. McDaniel began moving her things into the new rental in early March.

Snow was the one who found the bodies. Investigators think they died in their sleep.

Each year, about 180 deaths in the U.S. are linked to carbon monoxide from appliances and small engines, like those in portable generators, running in enclosed spaces, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates several thousand more are treated for carbon monoxide fumes at emergency rooms.

Heating equipment and portable generators are most often to blame, the commission said. Fumes from generators led to an average of 75 deaths per year from 2004 to 2006, while heating systems caused 63 deaths per year.

It's never safe, the commission warns, to operate a portable generator or gasoline engine-powered device in or near a garage or house, even if the windows are open. The fumes are odorless and colorless and difficult to notice without a detector.

Dozens of cities and states now have laws requiring carbon monoxide alarms or detectors in homes and apartments. An Oregon law that took effect in April requires landlords to provide alarms in rental units where there are potential carbon monoxide sources. Ohio has no law requiring detectors.

The concern among landlords is if they could be held accountable when a tenant removes a battery or notices a detector isn't working but fails to notify anyone, said Scot Haislip, a lobbyist with the Arlington, Va.-based National Apartment Association, which represents about 50,000 multifamily housing companies.

A landlord in Jersey City, N.J., is facing fines over a lack of mandatory carbon monoxide sensors after two people died within weeks in one building this spring. Prosecutors are looking into whether they can file criminal charges.

Another landlord on New York's Long Island pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to one to three years in prison last year after three tenants died from carbon monoxide in 2007. Prosecutors said he set up a gas-powered generator after a utility company cut off the electricity.

In Toledo, Wertz and her sister Paula McDaniel both think Snow knew the family was staying in the house that night.

"The only thing she wanted was a roof over their heads," said Paula McDaniel.

Shortly before she died, Tammy McDaniel told a neighbor, Debbie Trebino, that she was moving because she wanted a bigger house. Trebino found out only after the deaths that the real reason was because she couldn't keep up with her rent.

"She was a real proud woman," she said.


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