GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — “Please get them all. I’m telling you, the whole building’s on fire. Every damn part of it in flames.”
Those were the words from a woman to 911 dispatchers around 2:30 in the morning on Feb. 15, 2002, asking for firefighters to respond to the Campus Walk Apartments in Greensboro. Within four minutes, firefighters had already called in a second alarm as they watched people living in the building jumping from their third-floor windows to escape the flames.
“I can tell by the radio traffic, we are actively engaged in people jumping from windows. They’re trying to get ladders up to rescue people,” said retired Greensboro Fire Department Battalion Chief David Douglas. “I’m going, ‘Wow, this is an event.’”
Clayton Halls was one of those people.
“They saw my buddy and I poking our head out the window, and they said, ‘Clayton, Brent, jump you have to jump now,’” he recalled, adding his apartment door and deck were on fire. “I turned around, and then I hung down and got a little closer. It was still a pretty good drop. I remember going in the air, ‘OK. OK. Boom.’”
As Douglas explains, crews focused specifically on rescue efforts for about a half hour before they were able to start attacking the fire.
“The fire was ignited on the south side of the building. We had a wind that night that was blowing from the south to the north at about 18 miles an hour,” he said, explaining how the fire overtook the wooden building, as well as its wooden stairway. “There were apartments on this side, apartments on this side, and this breezeway was right in the middle.”
As crews continued to throw water on the fire, Douglas and others started trying to account for everyone in the apartments.
“It’s just one of those scenes that’s kind of surreal when it happens,” he said. “I’m stopping, going, ‘Who are you? We live in that building.’”
Douglas brought the residents to a neighboring restaurant where he sat the tenants in booths according to their apartments. There, they came up with a number of people they hoped they’d be able to track down.
“Now we’re down to like the number six or seven that we’re missing,” he added.
The owners of the building then reported to the scene where they were able to provide the department with a list of tenants. Next came parents Jim and Carolyn Llewellyn, who told Douglas their daughters, 24-year-old Donna and 21-year-old Rachel, hadn’t been contacted that morning.
“One was supposed to be at work. One was supposed to be at a clinical,” Douglas said. “So, the police department immediately started dispatching officers and saying, ‘Let’s see if we can’t round these girls up.’”
As reports came back saying the sisters hadn’t been located, firefighters found a body in the debris.
“We find another. And then we find another,” Douglas said. “This is beginning to be like the worst day.”
In total, four bodies were found. At the time, it was the deadliest fire in the history of the city of Greensboro.
“We get them in the command post, and I took Mrs. Llewellyn’s hands in mine just like this, and I looked her in the eyes,” Douglas said. “She knew exactly what I was going to say before I ever said it. It was tough. You’re fixing to tell a lady that both her daughters – we believe – have died in this fire.”
As the hours went on, firefighters identified another body as that of Donna’s boyfriend, 25-year-old Ryan Bek. The fourth body was identified as the sisters’ roommate, 20-year-old Beth Harris.
As Douglas details, Harris was the first to die.
“She had the least amount of burns, if you will,” he said. “She went out a door and immediately fell to her death. She hit a concrete thing two floors below. Very horrendous death.”
Bek and the Llewellyn sisters were killed running away from the fire.
“They get about halfway down and all the walkway stairs collapse. And they didn’t die from smoke inhalation. They were burned to death. Burned to death. If there’s a more horrendous way to die, I don’t know what it is,” Douglas said.
As those identifications and notifications were being made, investigators made another discovery.
“You have to understand this is the most senior investigator we have. Whatever he tells me is absolutely the truth. So, he comes and he says, ‘I have every reason to believe this fire was intentionally set.’ You’re kidding me? ‘No, come here and I’ll show you why,’” Douglas said. “We begin to look at the fire and we’re going, ‘Oh, wow. Not only do we have an intentionally set fire, we’ve got a crime scene.’”
The arrest of Janet Danahey
Within the next 24 hours, they got their first sign that law enforcement was on a trail.
“There were two prominent defense attorneys in Greensboro that everyone recognizes, and our D.A. at the time, Stuart Albright was there, and we knew then something was up because these guys don’t come out Saturday morning for no good reason,” Douglas said.
As officers built a case against their suspect, the victims were honored with memorials and events throughout the city.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her not smiling,” said a friend of Rachel’s in the days after her death. “That’s just Rachel.”
Days after the fire, as one service was taking place, police were across town making an announcement of their own.
“They have arrested Janet Louise Danahey, white female, 23,” they said.
Setting the fire
The circumstances of Danahey’s crimes soon came to the forefront. As Douglas explains, Danahey’s boyfriend had broken up with her about a week before Valentine’s Day, and she was “bothered by this.”
A document, written by former Guilford County Chief Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann, explains that her ex-boyfriend lived a short distance away from Danahey in the Campus Walk Apartments. A plan was “devised to vandalize [his] car by pouring something odorous in the air vents of the vehicle.”
The document continues to say Danahey and two friends went to a local grocery store and bought a bottle of clam juice. They then went to the Campus Walk Apartments parking lot, but her ex’s car wasn’t there.
Danahey then told her roommates to go back to their apartment and set fire to a futon outside of her ex’s home.
“She douses this futon with all this charcoal lighter fluid and lights it off,” Douglas said. “It ignited very quickly. It grew very rapidly. This is a big fire.”
Instead of knocking on doors to let occupants know about the growing fire, Danahey walked back to her apartment, took off her clothes and asked her roommates to drive her to a dumpster to dispose of the evidence, Douglas explained.
“There’s a dumpster in this complex. She’s going to have them drive her to a remote dumpster and throw it away. Sound like a prank to you? Not to me. That sounds like intent to me,” he said. “She makes no effort to come forward to say, ‘I’m responsible for this, I didn’t mean this.’ What she did was she left the city and went to her parents’ house in Monroe.”
The roommates then retrieved the bag of evidence and brought it to investigators, according to Douglas.
“Danahey wants you to believe this is a prank,” he said. “This is a college-educated lady. You would certainly believe that once she sees this she’d go, ‘Oh my God. What have I done?’”
‘Life in prison without parole’
Danahey accepted a plea deal to four counts of first-degree murder and first-degree arson. She avoided the death penalty as a result but was sentenced to life.
During that sentencing, which happened about five months after the fire, Danahey addressed the families of her victims face-to-face.
“The angels of your children have come to me, and I have touched their hands, and they have told me what it felt like to feel their flesh burn,” she said, prompting gasps from people in attendance. “I know who they are. They are a part of me now. You are my family now. You are stuck with me now. I hurt you, and I will make that better.”
“We agree, ‘OK, life in prison without parole. If it goes to trial, death penalty, but, hey, we’re OK if she’s locked up. We never see her again. She can’t hurt anybody else.’ We heal and we move forward,” said Bek’s sister, Amy Carrickhoff.
Possibility of parole
About 10 years later, however, in 2012, Danahey and her supporters filed a petition for clemency from then-Gov. Bev Purdue. It wasn’t granted. Gov. Pat McCrory, however, did commute her sentence, making her eligible for parole in 2029. In December 2022, Gov. Roy Cooper commuted her sentence again, making her eligible for parole on Jan. 1, 2023.
“But, knowing that you’ve done something that horrific—you killed four people—with a clear conscience. If it were my sister, could I be writing all these letters to get her out, knowing that she did a very bad thing—on purpose or not?” Carrickhoff said. “Apparently, it was on purpose because she had a chance to knock on a door, wake somebody up, and she didn’t. She fled. And then asked her friends to get rid of the evidence. You know, who does that?”
Before the commutation, Carrickhoff says the families of the victims received letters from Danahey and her sister.
“She writes this letter, ‘Ryan came to me in a dream, and he forgives me and thinks you should too.’ And all that healing was just right down,” she said. “We signed all this paperwork. She’s not to contact us. Then the Llewellyns were telling me the same thing, that her sister wrote a letter to their pastor at their church.”
Now, the families of the victims have resorted to a letter campaign to try to make their case to the parole commission that will decide Janet’s fate.
On Tuesday, Janet’s attorney Don Vaughan presented witnesses to the commission on Janet’s behalf.
“She had no prior record. She wasn’t a criminal. It was a bad situation that went bad,” Vaughan said.
FOX8’s investigation found a court document showing Danahey was charged with injury to personal property in Kernersville on Christmas Eve 1996. She pleaded guilty, paid a fine, and the charge was disposed of with prayer for judgment. It is no longer on her record. Danahey was 18 years old at the time of the offense.
According to Neumann, Danahey poured syrup on the vehicle of a male she knew, then covered it with cat litter and cereal. This happened the same year she was an Olympic torchbearer.
According to the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction, Danahey has had four infractions while in prison, including lock tampering in 2013, disobeying an order in 2022 and using profane language in 2021 and 2022.
“It has been 21 years. She has an impeccable record. She is a great individual. She couldn’t have done more to better her fellow inmates at women’s prison and herself, and I think that’s what the governor looks at,” Vaughan said, adding that Danahey has taught courses, taught people to read and worked on every project jail staff have asked her to do.
The case for release
“She just wants to live and to work and live in a God-honoring way,” said Danahey’s sister Emily Danahey Kroeger after the parole review process began on Tuesday.
According to the families of the victims, all but one of their immediate family members want Danahey to continue to serve her life sentence. That one, admittedly, is the father of Beth Harris, Bob Harris.
“She’s a remarkable young woman, and not that she would replace Beth as my daughter, but, yeah, if she was my daughter, I’d be proud of her,” Harris said on Tuesday.
Bob Harris also detailed a letter he received from Danahey the week prior.
“She was telling me some things she wanted to do in honor of or memory of Ryan, Rachel, Donna and Beth, and that touched my heart,” he said.
Danahey’s sister said her family is taking this process as an opportunity to present evidence supporting the argument that the fire and resulting deaths stemmed from a prank.
“The fact that the others have never spoken under oath about their involvement,” she said, alluding to the roommates that investigators said were initially with Danahey on the night of the fire.
Vaughan said he presented a plan to the commission for where Danahey would live and work should she be released.
“She’s been offered a job. She’ll probably live with her sister if it’s approved by the commission, who’s an ordained Methodist minister down in Monroe, North Carolina,” he said, referring to Emily Danahey Kroeger. “She has two churches there.”
“The good thing that can result from this is to be a positive influence on especially young people because we’re not alone in this and we have something to share of importance,” Emily Danahey Kroeger added.
The case to complete the sentence
Beth Harris’ brother, Matthew, who is Bob Harris’ son, is on the side of the family members calling for Danahey to complete her life sentence.
“This isn’t a person from a broken home that’s experienced crime in their life to not know better. She does know better,” Matthew Harris said. “Their words: ‘It’s a prank.’ That’s not a prank. That’s domestic violence to a tee.”
Matthew Harris says he served as a firefighter and a Raleigh police officer for 10 years.
“She made a promise to the courts, to her parents, to her family, to us, to the victims, to everybody, that she was going to stay her life in prison and not be eligible for parole,” he said.
“Saying she agreed to this, there was no choice,” Danahey’s sister said.
“If there were eight or nine people that were dead because of it, would she still get the clemency? Is there a number they consider for clemency?” Carrickhoff asked, pointing out there could have easily been more victims of the fire.
As Douglas explained, the initial notifications on the night of the fire were made by two men who went outside for a cigarette and noticed the flames.
“If these two guys do not see this fire burning, our death count easily goes into double-digits,” he said. “I think there were 24 survivors and then the four that died. So, there were 28. If memory serves me correctly, that was the number. So, easily, this fire could have gone that high. Easily.”
Officials say the family members of the victims will be contacted with an offer to present their case to the commission. As of this writing, they say they have not been, but have prepared fact-based statements.
“We’re not going to go away. The victims’ families are still here. We’re still hurting. Incredibly. And there’s still an incredible sense of loss that we’re all feeling, and that’s not going to go away,” Carrickhoff said.
“Well, there’s people all across the board on this. And my heart goes out to her. I can’t imagine what pain she’s had to go through, and Janet can’t imagine either,” Vaughan said, in response to Carrickhoff’s statements. “But the governor agreed this was time enough, and that’s his job as governor. And it’s an unchecked power.”
Vaughan says the commissioners will review witness testimony and, if they rule in Danahey’s favor, determine any conditions of release, when the release would happen and a finalized work and home plan. He adds that he expects a decision “sometime soon.”
“Those four people that died? If you can resurrect them, if you can take the scores of people, the survivors, and you can erase that from their memory, maybe Danahey gets another shot,” Douglas said. “But you can’t resurrect those people. They’re dead forever.”
Danahey is now 44 years old.