AMITE — A forensic pathologist testified Monday in the first-degree murder trial of Michael Varnado that Juana Roberts died of suffocation and that her two children died of smoke inhalation in a subsequent fire in 2007.
The fire was allegedly set by Varnado and razed Roberts’ Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile home in a park off U.S. 190 West near Hammond on Feb. 16, 2007.
Dr. Susan Garcia, of the Jefferson Parish Forensic Center, said she examined Roberts, 20, shortly after the three bodies were recovered and found Roberts had died of suffocation. Garcia said Roberts’ throat and lungs were clear of any smoke or soot, which would have indicated death by smoke inhalation.
Garcia also testified that Roberts’ children, 1-year-old Mykell Roberts and 2-month-old Demetrios Collier Jr., had ample evidence they died of smoke inhalation. She said both had soot marks on their faces and in their throats and lungs.
Judge Ray Chutz recessed the trial about 7 p.m. after Assistant District Attorney Don Wall, who is prosecuting the case in 21st Judicial District Court, said he was unable to call his list of witnesses in proper sequence at that late hour.
The trial resumes in the Tangipahoa Parish Courthouse on Tuesday.
Wall also submitted numerous photos taken of the victims by Garcia. Defense attorneys Michael Thiel and Steve Lemoine objected to having the photos “published” to the jury of seven women and five men, contending they were redundant and would only serve to influence jurors. Lemoine termed the photos “horrifying to look at.”
Chutz overturned the objection and the jury was shown dozens of photos.
Lance LaMarca, of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, testified that he recognized a “pour pattern” at the trailer indicating that an accelerant had been used to set the structure ablaze. LaMarca also testified there was an “obvious smell of gasoline” around the trailer when he investigated the crime scene.
LaMarca further testified that the smell of gasoline was evident on the clothing of the victims.
He said he and other investigators obtained a warrant to search the trailer and recovered a pillow near the entrance and a distorted plastic container that could have held a fire accelerant. He said he could not identify the size of the container or its original purpose.
LaMarca said that eventually Varnado also was charged with aggravated arson.
Janie St. Romain — who said she lived in the FEMA trailer park for a brief time in February 2007 — said that on the day of the fire she and a friend had asked a man they knew to drive them to the nearby U.S. 190 Motel. While they were still at the trailer park, a man approached the driver of the vehicle they were in and said he had run out of gas and needed a ride to a service station. At the station, he purchased gas in a plastic container, she said.
St. Romain said she could not identify the man who purchased the gas. She added that she had never seen him before nor since.
Wall played a surveillance videotape for the jurors that showed St. Romain and her companion at the service station on the date and at almost the same time as the fire occurred. St. Romain said that while at the motel, she and her companion heard sirens and saw fire trucks head toward the trailer park.
Demetrios Collier Sr., the biological father of victim Demetrios Collier Jr., said his son had spent the night at his house the night before the fire at the trailer park. He said he and Varnado had had “words” at North Oaks Medical Center the night of his son’s birth but that they had not had any other “trouble” since.
When Wall asked Collier, “Did you kill your son and Juana Roberts,” Collier replied, “I did not!”
District Attorney Scott Perilloux is seeking the death penalty in the case.