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SIUC | Pyramid Apartments Fire
SIUC holds memorial service to honor students lost in Pyramid Apartments fire 25 years ago

CARBONDALE — Sunday, Dec. 6, 1992, should have marked the end of a carefree weekend of holiday celebration.

On Wednesday, Carla Coppi recalled the Lights Fantastic parade the night before the tragic Pyramid Apartments fire. With pride, she'd watched members of the International Student Council march alongside “a giant metal globe carrying lighted candles, symbolizing peace on earth.”

Coppi, who was assistant director of International Student Services at the time, was awakened hours later by a phone call from her boss; he asked her to join him at the Pyramid Apartments at 504 S. Rawlings St.

From the archives: Remembering the Pyramid Apartments fire, 25 years later

“It was a very cold night, and thick smoke hung in the air over Rawlings Street,” Coppi said. “Forever etched in my mind’s eye will be the vision of the frozen columns of ice covering the charred remains of the apartment building. I knew immediately from the expressions on the faces of the firemen that students had perished.”

Five SIU students died in the fire; four were international students. Those killed were: Cheng Teck Wong, 23, of Malaysia; Ronald A. Moy, 23, of Chicago; Kimioko Ajioka, 25, of Japan; Lai Hung Tam, 23, of Hong Kong; and Mazlina Ab Wahid, 28, of Malaysia. Several others were in critical condition, some having jumped from the top floors of the building to escape the flames.

Authorities believed the fire was the result of arson, but a suspect was never identified. The Carbondale Police Department currently lists the fire as a cold case.

Coppi was among several speakers at a 25th anniversary memorial service held Wednesday afternoon near the boat dock at Campus Lake. After the fire, she said, the city and campus came together to find shelter for the displaced and to allow the injured to finish the semester.

“I have never been more proud or moved by the generosity and humanity displayed by my town and my university during those very dark days. The outpouring of kindness and support and compassion was remarkable,” Coppi said.

“These students came from around the world to find their path at SIU,” said SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno. “We honor them for their courage and vision to seek an education so far from home. We remember them, because they did not get to see their vision fulfilled, and because any loss to the SIU family is a loss to each and every one of us.”

Carbondale Mayor John “Mike” Henry took a moment to honor the first responders present and said the international student community has the city’s “continued commitment and support.”

“One of the most important purposes of this memorial services is to remember not only those students who died in the fire, but to also reflect on the lives of our students, their parents, and those within communities around the world whose lives were forever changed that morning 25 years ago today,” Henry said.

After the service, Jeff Doherty, a current Carbondale City Council member who served as city manager from 1992 to 2008, said the city toughened its fire codes in response to the apartment-complex blaze, primarily by disallowing wood paneling, which helped the Pyramid fire spread quickly.

“(The Pyramid fire) brought to light what was there and the need to change,” Doherty said.

Carbondale Police Chief Jeff Grubbs said the department still has a strong commitment to resolving the case.

“You certainly don’t want to put odds on your ability to successfully resolve an incident, especially one that happened so long ago, but some of the irony associated with that is that there are still several of us that remain at the police department who are in leadership positions that keep that case alive,” Grubbs said.

Grubbs was among the three patrol officers who responded to the fire at the time and continue to serve in the police department.

“Obviously all the first responders, once we saw the significance of what was occurring that night and those who were desperately trying to escape the smoke and the flames — it’s one of those moments in life that you still have vivid memories of and hope that tragedies like that don’t ever occur again,” Grubbs said.

He said people could still be out there, either in the U.S. or in other countries, who have information pertaining to the fire.

“Even if they don’t realize the significance of that information, we would simply call upon them to provide (it) to us, to help us get to a point where we can resolve an incident as tragic as this one was,” Grubbs said.

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Union County
UPS driver interrupts his schedule to help report, fight fire in rural Jonesboro

JONESBORO — On Monday afternoon, Tyler Slomka called his manager at the UPS Distribution Center in Marion, alerting him that he needed help delivering the rest of his packages.

The delivery driver for UPS had come across a situation around 12:45 p.m. Monday on Springville Hill Road that delayed his deliveries by a few hours.

He'd been driving up the winding, dipping and climbing road when he drove into a cloud of smoke and saw leaves on trees burning and smelled burning rubber.

He mentioned the burning to a customer to whom he’d delivered a package, and she thought to call the fire department; meanwhile, Slomka drove back down the rural road to get the accurate house address.

He then resumed delivering some packages, coming back across the home, where neighbor Judy Sims had already sprung into action.

“I had got three or four buckets of water, and the next thing I know, he’s pulling up, coming up to help me move stuff away from (the fire),” Sims said.

Slomka and Sims alerted authorities to the fire, which apparently started from trash being burned by the owner of the home at the foot of a steep driveway off of the main road.

“It was up in the trees,” Sims said of the fire. “It burned, I’m gonna say, probably two or three acres of the ground, the tractor, a lot of stuff in the front yard.”

No damage, no injuries

Firefighters from the Jonesboro Fire Department put out the fire, assisted by firefighters from the Shawnee National Forest, Jonesboro Fire Chief Tim Bowen said.

Thankfully, the fire did not damage the home — nestled in the midst of a pack of trees — nor any of those up the hill on either side of the road, nor did it cause any injuries, Bowen said. He said about four or five acres of the homeowner's property was burned, but that it should be fine by the next growing season.

After Slomka's call for help, other UPS drivers were dispatched to help him deliver the rest of his packages, Rob Bean, Slomka’s manager at UPS, said. The workload, which is doubled in this holiday season, took a few more hours, with Slomka finishing up at about 10 p.m. on Monday, he said.

“He really could have possibly saved some houses — and lives — at the same time,” Bean said.

Slomka, who is approaching his fifth year with UPS, said he did what he would have wanted someone to do for him.

He said he knew something was wrong, almost immediately. He said the smoldering embers or leaves were apparently tossed around by Monday's blustery winds.

'Not a hero thing'

At the site Wednesday afternoon, almost half the ground off the driveway leading to the house was parched from the fire.

"I don’t see it as a hero thing,” Slomka said. “I see it as more of doing the right thing ... trying to take care of one another. That’s how things should be.”

This is not the first time a UPS driver has been involved in a life-threatening situation, Bean said. A few years ago, a driver out delivering packages noticed something amiss in the snow and went over to investigate, discovering an elderly woman who had fallen in the snow and couldn’t get up. Immobilized, she could have frozen to death, he said.

“It happens more than I know,” Bean said of UPS driver rescue situations. “The drivers just take care of it and move on.”

A UPS media relations representative agreed.

"We are very proud of our driver heroes," representative Kim Krebs wrote in an email. "There are many stories of UPSers bravery, kindness and compassion posted on our social media channels including Facebook and Twitter."

Sims, who lost her own home to a fire during Christmastime in 1999, is thankful for Slomka's alertness.

“I was really proud of him,” Sims said.

“But had he not have stopped ... all of them houses would probably have burned.”

Jackson County
Carbondale woman indicted on first-degree murder in Thanksgiving Day stabbing death of her boyfriend

A Carbondale woman has been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of her boyfriend on Thanksgiving Day.

Rebecca B. Valentine, 42, was indicted by a grand jury in Jackson County on a first-degree murder charge in the death of Reginal Glispie, according to a Wednesday news release from Jackson County state's attorney Michael C. Carr.

Just after midnight on Nov. 23, Carbondale Police officers responded to an emergency phone call from a female requesting services for a person who was bleeding inside an apartment in the 300 block of South Marion Street. Upon arrival, officers found Glispie, who was 55, lying unresponsive inside the apartment with a stab wound to his chest. Glispie was taken to Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, where he was pronounced dead.

Valentine is currently in custody at the Jackson County Jail with bail set at $1 million. Arraignment is scheduled for 12:45 p.m. Dec. 12.

If convicted on the first-degree murder charge, Valentine faces 20 to 60 years in prison with three years of mandatory supervised release.

Valentine had preliminarily been charged with involuntary manslaughter after her arrest on Nov. 23, according to an earlier release from the Carbondale Police Department.

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New fines, liens filed against Morthland College, Morthland College Health Services

WEST FRANKFORT — A recent string of court decisions and tax sales have been added to previously levied fines and liens against Morthland College.

Two civil cases were settled against Morthland businesses last month. According to Judici, Judge Thomas Dinn entered a default decision Nov. 30, siding with Integrated Spine Care when nobody from Morthland College Specialty Physicians appeared in court for the hearing. The judge ordered a payment of $8,456 be made to settle the dispute.

A second, much larger, settlement was reached just three days prior. Similar to the Integrative Spine Care hearing, nobody from the Morthland Institution of Higher Learning appeared in Judge Melissa Morgan’s courtroom to offer a defense. A default judgement in favor of Donnie Hoffard and Dennis Bowers was made and a fee of $80,914.95 is be paid to the plaintiffs.

Brandon Mayberry represented Hoffard and Bowers in the case. He said the dispute came over rent owed to the two after Morthland College attempted to, in the plaintiffs’ eyes, illegally exit a lease signed for a sports complex.

Mayberry said representatives from Morthland College approached his clients about leasing a building to be used as a sports complex for its athletic program. An agreement was reached that Morthland College would sign a lease with the understanding that modifications would be made to the building by the owners to make it more suitable as a sports complex. Mayberry said this meant adding about 20 shower stalls and replacing portions of the flooring — he said the work cost more than $20,000.

Morthland College disbanded its athletics program in May.

Mayberry said the college believed there was a clause in the lease that would have released them early, however, because no one appeared to represent the school, the judge never heard the defense.

As to the damages suffered by his clients, Mayberry said it’s not going to be an easy thing to make the property viable for other customers.

“Nobody in West Frankfort wants a building with 20 showers in it, or all-tile floors,” Mayberry said. “They are going to have to renovate it again because of it."

These court settlements were accompanied by four tax sales of Morthland-owned property as well as a new lot of IRS tax liens filed against both Morthland College and Morthland College Health Services.

According to documents obtained from the Franklin County Clerk’s office Dec. 1, on Nov. 28, tax debt on four parcels of property owned by The Morthland Institution of Higher Learning was sold by Franklin County. The debt was for tax year 2016. This type of sale occurs after county property taxes are left unpaid.

Parcel No. 12-19-315-009 — which, based on County Assessor's maps, appears to be the school’s office on Oak Street in West Frankfort — was sold for $768.97 to Scott Williams of West Frankfort. To redeem the property, $816.66, which includes a $40 County Clerk fee and $7.69 in interest, would have to be paid.

Properties on West Main Street with Parcel Nos. 11-24-426-009, 010 were sold to P & N Properties Inc. in Teutopolis. Based on County Assessor maps, these two lots are located near CVS in West Frankfort. Property parcel ending in 009 was sold for $1,176.94 and could be redeemed for $1,405.25, which includes a $40 Clerk’s fee as well as $188.31 in interest. The parcel ending in 010 was sold for $1,256.81 and would require $1,472.76, including a $40 Clerk’s fee as well as $175.95 in interest, to redeem the property.

Based on County Assessor maps, it would appear the Coleman-Rhoads building on East Main was also affected by the tax sale. Parcel No. 12-19-312-001 was sold for $2,092.28 to Jab Securities Inc. in Waterloo. To redeem the property, $2,153.20 would have to be paid, which includes a $40 Clerk’s fee as well as $20.92 in interest.

The Coleman-Rhoads building was donated to the college in 2014 by Brent Coleman and Steve Rhoads.

When asked about the tax sale on the building he and his former business partner donated, Rhoads, who once served on the college’s board of directors, said he had not heard the news. He had little comment on the tax sale, but said the state he sees the college in is disheartening.

“What’s happening at Morthland College is sad to me and has been a blow to the community,” he said, also stating that he no longer is affiliated with the school.

According to the real estate redemption estimates, the interest will change for each of the four properties on May, 28, 2018. If these debts go unpaid by Nov. 28, 2019, the purchasers could petition the court to take possession of the deeds for their respective properties.

As of noon on Wednesday, no redemptions were recorded in the Franklin County Clerk’s office. A representative from the office said that any payment sent in the mail could potentially have been in the office, but would not yet have been filed.

Adding to this, Morthland Institution of Higher Learning and Morthland College Health Services also had fresh Internal Revenue Service liens filed against them in November.

On Nov. 15, the IRS filed a lien against the institution for the tax period ending March 31 of this year. According to records in the county clerk’s office, the unpaid balance on the lien was $129,261.72. On the same day, the IRS also filed a $399,193.39 lien against MCHS for the same tax period.

This would be the second period of missed taxes for both entities. In April, the IRS filed a $123,120.87 lien against the school and in May, filed a lien $611,303.37 against MCHS.

As of noon on Wednesday, there had been no releases filed for any of the IRS tax liens at the Franklin County Clerk’s office, though again, a representative said payments or releases could have come by mail, but would not yet have been filed. 

It is unclear if the newly-filed liens are in addition to these amounts filed earlier this year, or if the new figures include previous unpaid liens. A certified public accountant at Carlos Tanner’s office in Marion was inclined to believe the new liens to be seperate from those filed earlier this year, because the IRS listed only one tax period on the filing document.

The kind of tax referenced by the recent liens is detailed as a 941. According to, this type of tax filing deals with employee taxes withheld by an employer. The CPA with Tanner’s office said the IRS would not hold employees accountable for taxes withheld but not filed by their employers.

The CPA said these liens are a “tool” for the IRS to collect money and that deeds for property listed as owned by affected companies cannot be transferred without satisfying the liens, which muddies the waters for the recent tax sales made the by the county. The accountant said that all comments on the matter were made as general statements as the office had not reviewed Morthland’s particular cases.

Darrell Dunham, partner at The Bankruptcy Advocates in Carbondale and former bankruptcy law professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, spoke with The Southern in generalities — he has not reviewed the specifics of the Morthland liens. He said each case is detail-specific, but he was able to provide some general rules of thumb. He said should someone purchase tax debt on a property, there is a chance a tax lien could come with the deed.

“It’s likely to depend on whether the IRS filed its lien prior to the sale,” he said adding that in most cases “the prior filed tax liens will defeat (the) tax sale purchaser.”

Both IRS liens were filed before the tax sale posted.

Dunham said in an email that tax purchasers are typically "legally sophisticated buyers." He said if a lien is attached to a property, they typically try to work something out with a lien holder like the IRS.

A representative from Jab Securities said this is true in their case. The representative said these types of arrangements are usually made prior to petitioning for a deed.

The IRS declined comment for this report, stating that it is not allowed to discuss individual tax records.

Questions were submitted through a media liaison to both college president and founder, Tim Morthland, as well as its executive vice president, Emily Hayes, regarding the fines and levies. The Southern asked why no representation appeared in court on their behalf and if payment plans had been made to pay down outstanding back taxes at both the state and federal levels as well as their court fines. The following statement was returned by a Morthland College representative:

"Dr. Morthland has spent upwards of $5 million of his own money to make his dream of bringing a faith-based college to his hometown, which has been devastated by the collapse of the coal industry, a reality. While mistakes may have been made along the way, we are dismayed that rather than recognize all of the effort that Dr. Morthland has put into trying to revitalize the community, the Southern continues to try to do everything it can to portray Dr. Morthland, his medical practice and the College in a negative light."

In September, Morthland College was notified that the U.S. Department of Education was putting in place an “emergency action,” completely cutting off its eligibility for Title IV student aid dollars and fining the college just over $2 million for an alleged "breach of fiduciary duty."

The college is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education as well as by the Illinois Board of Higher Education because of the recent emergency action.