FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – A 55-year-old man was sentenced to life in prison for setting a house fire, which caused the death of a woman who befriended him and gave him a place to live.
Jurors convicted Cliff Douglas Parker of manslaughter last week for recklessly causing the death of Betty Roberts. She was the 67-year-old widow of a Fort Worth Police Officer. Roberts was known affectionately known as “Mom” by many neighbors.
On Wednesday – after jurors heard that Parker was a repeat offender who had a prior conviction for arson – they deliberated less than an hour before sentencing him to the maximum of life in prison.
During the trial, prosecutors Miles Brissette and Betty Arvin presented evidence that Roberts was a kind-hearted woman who took in stray pets and people who had fallen on hard times. In the fall of 2011, three adults — Parker, Freddie Thomas and Janice Covington — were living with Roberts in her west Fort Worth duplex in the 8100 block of Arbor Avenue.
On the afternoon of September 19, 2011, Parker — an admitted alcoholic — was drinking and arguing with Thomas and Covington. At one point before Roberts went to work at her job at Walmart, she asked Parker to leave in an effort to keep the peace in her home.
Parker left for awhile but returned later that night, which started a new round of drinking and arguing with Thomas and Covington. At some point, he threatened them, saying “I’m going to burn this mother —– house down.”
Later, after the others went to bed, Parker lit a garage sofa on fire with a lighter, an action he later told homicide investigators was an attempt to “smoke up the residence to the point where everyone had to leave.”
Just before 3:30 a.m., Fort Worth Police Officers Lyndsey Stewart and Carson Bell were on duty in the area and heard a dispatch go out reporting a house fire with people trapped. The officers raced to the scene to find Covington outside hysterical, and Parker calmly smoking a cigarette on the porch of the burning structure.
They kicked in the door and charged in to save Roberts and Thomas.
They found Thomas by the front door, just feet away from the flames. The officers’ rescue efforts were hampered, however, by Parker, who repeatedly tried to push Officer Stewart back into the burning house as they tried to carry out Roberts’ lifeless body.
Firefighters, meanwhile, arrived and pulled Thomas out of the structure.
Both Thomas and Roberts were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital’s world-renowned burn unit in Dallas, where they received care.
Thomas survived. Roberts fought for 52 days, but finally succumbed to the thermal injuries she sustained to her lungs as a result of inhaling smoke and fire debris.
Before Roberts died, the officers who risked their lives to save her and Thomas were honored for their heroic actions.
During the punishment phase of the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Parker was on parole at the time of the Fort Worth fire for an arson he committed in Ellis County in 1997. In that case, he forced his 12 -year-old daughter to light their residence on fire. He threatened to beat the girl and her 6-year-old sister if she didn’t obey him.
Retired Deputy State Fire Marshal Glenn Jennings testified this week that he’ll never forget that case because Parker’s daughter blurted out, “Daddy made me do it.”
“Betty Roberts died in one of the most horrific ways imaginable,” said Prosecutor Miles Brissette. “The burn unit at Parkland Hospital was able to treat the burns to her skin and restore her spirit and will to live, but she couldn’t overcome the damage to her lungs and died.”
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