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Officials: Mo. Group Home Fire Not Arson

Authorities on Wednesday ruled out arson as the cause of a fire that killed 10 people at a southwest Missouri group home for the elderly and mentally ill, but said the cause may have been faulty electrical wiring.

"No evidence was found that the fire was intentionally set," said Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Jason Clark.

"It's a relief for the town," said Bob Corcoran, mayor of the former railroad town of about 1,800 people. "We don't need that kind of people running around."

State Fire Marshall Randy Cole said the exact cause of the fire that broke out in the attic may never be determined because the north end of the building where the fire started was completely destroyed. However, experts said remaining electrical wiring in the south end of the attic had been improperly spliced.

Asked if there were any other possible causes, Cole said: "just electrical wiring in the attic." He said nothing indicated natural gas was involved.

Deputy Chief State Fire Marshall Bill Zieres said nothing was stored in the attic but it was insulated with blown cellulose, "which can sustain a smoldering fire." Also inside the attic, Zieres said, were wooden trusses that supported the roof.

Investigators believe the fire started in the northwest corner of the attic and smoldered for an undetermined amount of time before breaking through the ceiling into living areas.

Cole said the investigation was continuing, including into whether there was any negligence by the owners. He said the improperly spliced wiring was a violation of national building codes, but there are no state or local enforcement for those standards.

The news came just hours before the first funerals for victims of Monday's blaze at the Anderson Guest House, one of Missouri's deadliest fires that has prompted new national calls for sprinkler systems in all assisted living centers.

The Anderson home had fire alarms but no sprinklers that could have doused the flames. In Missouri, only certain types of long-term care facilities are required to have comprehensive sprinkler systems and only in certain circumstances, such as those that house residents on a second floor.

But that law doesn't cover the single-story Anderson Guest House, which was built before 1980 — the cutoff year under Missouri law.

Two victims were due to be buried Wednesday afternoon — Anderson native Patricia Henson, 54, in the nearby town of Jane, and Don Schorzman, 57, in Lamar, Missouri, their funeral homes said.

After the blaze, questions persisted about the role of the group home's owner, Robert Joseph Dupont, 62, who was convicted in 2003 for his part in a scheme to bilk Medicare.

Dupont steered patients from group homes he owned — including the one in Anderson — to hand-picked doctors. Those doctors, in exchange, falsely certified that the patients needed home health services from two companies Dupont owned or co-owned, according to federal records.

Dupont was sentenced to 21 months behind bars, followed by three years of supervised release. Earlier this year, a federal judge rejected Dupont's efforts to persuade the court to vacate that conviction.

Under state law, a convicted felon in a crime involving a health care facility is not allowed to be an "operator" or "principal" in a Missouri long-term care facility.

But in a 2004 federal bankruptcy petition, Dupont listed his occupation as executive director of the group home operator River of Life Ministries Inc., a position he said he had held for more than three years.

After The Associated Press pointed out the apparent discrepancy, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said state officials will investigate Dupont's involvement.

The agency, which licensed the group, "would have serious concerns if an excluded individual were involved in operating the facility," Gonder said.

Dupont, who owns the land and building that burned Monday, did not respond to repeated telephone calls to his home and office seeking comment.

Dupont's wife, Laverne Dupont, reached briefly by phone Tuesday evening, told The Kansas City Star: "Everything that we're doing is legal. We're here, and we're working with the mentally ill, and we intend to keep doing that."

A spokesman for Gov. Matt Blunt said there is no prohibition against a felon owning the land and buildings for a residential care facility. "I'm told he is not affiliated with this entity in any legal sense," Blunt spokesman Brian Hauswirth said.

Judy Lemons, 36, daughter of victim Alta Lemons, 74, said, "We just want to know why." Said Lemons' niece Diana Gow: "This has been the hardest thing I think we've ever been through. We expected her to pass on someday but we sure didn't expect this."

Shirley Brannon, who said she manages the Anderson group home, said two employees — Glen Taff, 19, and his 18-year-old wife, Amanda — "ought to be called heroes" for rescuing residents.

"He went in and out of the building three times," she said. "The fourth time, he didn't make it back. They took her out of the house screaming. She didn't want to come out. She was trying to get the rest of them," Brannon said.

The coroner said it appeared most of the rest of the victims had been asleep when the fire broke out, noting they were found dressed in bed clothes and without shoes. "It appears they all died of smoke inhalation," coroner B.J. Goodwin said.