Overnight house arson kills two girls
Someone intentionally set fire to a house that killed two girls, ages 16 and 12, early Monday morning in Guthrie Center, a state fire marshal concluded after a two-day investigation.
Shakiah Cockerham, 16, and her cousin Melanie “Paige” Exline, 12, died in the fire at 1005 Main St. that was reported about 12:30 a.m., according to Mitch Mortvedt, an assistant director for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
“The Fire Marshal’s office has ruled it’s arson, making the deaths a criminal act as well,” Mortvedt said. “We are pursuing all leads.”
He declined to reveal more about the investigation, such as how they think the fire began.
Four people were asleep in the house at the time of the fire. Two people — Shirley Exline, 74, and William Long III, 54 — escaped. Exline owns the house, county records show.
Court records show Exline is the great-grandmother and legal guardian of Cockerham, and that Long is the girl’s great uncle.
“You just can’t prepare yourself for this,” said Dave Embleton, the town’s fire chief. “Pulling young children out of fires, you can’t prepare for that. I have two kids of my own, roughly the same age as those two, and that makes it a little more tough for me.”
Firefighters found one of the girls’ bodies in the morning and one that afternoon.
Exline and Long were taken to an Omaha hospital for treatment — Exline for minor injuries and Long for severe burns to his upper body. Long is still in the hospital.
“I think the adults got up and tried to get out,” Sheriff Marty Arganbright said. “I don’t know if there was an explosion because of the heat of the fire — it blew a window out — but the man and woman got out, and the two juveniles could not.
“It was such a tragic fire ... two young girls, that’s what makes it so bad.”
It was a tough day for his department, but Embleton said everyone is holding up pretty well.
“Nobody in our department has ever been through anything like this, it was a first for all of us,” he said. “I’d like to thank the community for their outpouring support. And I can’t thank Panora enough, they matched our numbers and it just says a lot about how our communities can pull together and work as one.”
Arganbright echoed the support from the community.
“I’m selfish with Guthrie County, I think we have it the best,” he said.
Whoever set the fire faces potential felony charges of first-degree arson and homicide or murder, the most serious of which is punishable by life in prison.