AMITE — Michael Varnado smothered his girlfriend Juana Roberts, then poured gasoline on her body and her two children before setting her trailer on fire, causing the deaths of the two children, Assistant District Attorney Don Wall told a jury Sunday during opening statements in Varnado’s capital murder trial.
Varnado is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the Feb. 16, 2007, deaths of Roberts, 20, Mykell Roberts, 1, and Demetrios Collier Jr., 2 months.
The three died in their Federal Emergency Management Agency Trailer located just outside the city limits of Hammond on U.S. 190.
“We intend to prove he committed three first-degree murders,” Wall told the jury. “We will need to prove the elements and that he was the one who did it.”
When he learned of the deaths of Roberts and the children — Mykell Roberts was Varnado’s biological daughter — he fled to Mississippi for three weeks, Wall told the jury.
Varnado’s mother, Diana Varnado, discovered the fire when she went to the trailer to give Mykell Roberts a birthday gift, Wall said.
Diana Varnado called 911, who dispatched law enforcement and firefighters to the scene, Wall said.
Subsequent investigation showed that the fire was intentionally set, Wall told the jury.
“Fire Marshal officials will testify that the smell of gasoline was intense,” he said. Others who fought the fire and treated the victims will “testify about the smell of gasoline on the clothes of the children.”
Two other witnesses will testify that Varnado asked a third man to go and buy gasoline for him the day of the fire, Wall said.
“It’s a horrible, horrific tragedy,” Varnado’s attorney, Michael Thiel, told the jury during his opening statement. “The only thing worse would be to convict an innocent man and sentence him to death.
“This case is about what the evidence will not show,” Thiel added.
There are “gaps” in the state’s case that can only be bridged by “leaps of faith” by the jury, he said.
Varnado, who had four other children by two other women, loved all of his children, Thiel said. That included Demetrios Collier Jr., who though he was not Varnado’s biological child, was treated as if he was by Varnado, Thiel said.
Thiel said Varnado had made some bad choices, including forming an addiction to cocaine, but he loved the children.
After opening statements, the jury heard testimony from Juana Roberts’ mother and grandmother, who said the relationship between Varnado and Juana Roberts was characterized by arguing and frequent separations.
The state then called Varnado’s mother, Diana Varnado, to the stand.
She told the jury that she was able to get Demetrios Collier out of the burning house, but the smoke was too intense for her to locate Juana Roberts or Mykell Roberts, she said.
Varnado can be heard screaming hysterically and pounding on the doors of nearby trailers to get some help on a recording of the 911 call, which Wall played for the jury.
“Nobody wants to help me,” she could be heard yelling.
The jury also heard testimony from first responders who arrived on the scene of the fire and helped put it out.
They also heard from Stephanie Taylor, a paramedic with Acadian Ambulance, who responded and administered CPR to the children on the way to North Oaks Medical Center in Hammond.
Taylor testified that the smell of gasoline on the children and their clothing was very strong, testimony that was seconded by Bonnie Cooper, a nurse at the North Oaks emergency room, who helped detectives gather evidence in the emergency room.
Other witnesses included Lance LaMarca, an arson investigator with the Louisiana Fire Marshal’s office.
“The fire originated near the door of the trailer,” LaMarca said. “It was not started by an electrical component.”
The smell of gasoline was present, and several cloth samples from the living room of the trailer “where the fire damage was the worst” had gas on them according to lab analysis, Lamarca said.
Testimony in the case is scheduled to continue at 1 p.m. Monday.