For more than two years, the family of Awilda Maddox believed the fast-moving fire that killed her, her son, and five of her grandchildren was a tragic accident.
The Perrysburg Township Fire Department had surmised that hot ashes from a potbellied stove used for heating the wood-frame house had fallen and ignited the floor while the family slept Dec. 27, 1985.
In 1988, the Maddox family learned differently.
Rhoda Maddox, who lived with her mother at the Perrysburg Heights home at the time, confessed to setting the fire at the direction and urging of her boyfriend, Orville Wheeler, Jr. The two were convicted in Wood County Common Pleas Court of aggravated arson and seven counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of Mrs. Maddox, 69; her son, Curtis Maddox, Jr., 33; his two sons, 10 and 8, and his three daughters, age 9 and 7-year-old twins.
In May, both Rhoda Maddox, 64, and Wheeler, 68, are scheduled to come before the Ohio Parole Board. Some surviving family members and the victims’ advocate group, Block Parole Inc., are working to make sure they remain in prison.
“[Orville Wheeler] made threats,” said Deb Maddox, a daughter-in-law of Awilda Maddox. “He bragged about the fire. He bragged about getting half of the Maddox family, and all he had to do was go back and get the other half of the family. I am still afraid. He killed seven of my family members.”
According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Rhoda Maddox was denied parole in 1998, in 2003, and again in 2005. Wheeler was denied release in 1998 and 2008.
Deb Maddox said she is worried this time may be different. She is urging the public to let the parole board know the pair should not be released and should not come up for parole again for the maximum 10 years.
Interested persons can send a letter to the parole board or send a message through the Web site blockparole.com, which has posted a story about the crimes.
Bret Vinocur, president of Block Parole Inc., said the case sickens him.
“This is two people who premeditated the murder of seven people. They planned this out before they did it,” Mr. Vinocur said. “This is a woman who murdered her own family — her own mother, her own brother, and they killed five children under the age of 11. The loss and damage they caused is just beyond human comprehension.”
Rhoda Maddox pleaded guilty to the charges in Wood County Common Pleas Court, then testified against Wheeler at his trial, which ended in guilty verdicts.
While each was sentenced to a maximum of 200 years in prison, prosecutors said at the time that state law stipulated they would have to serve a minimum of just 15 years.
Rhoda Maddox is to have a parole hearing Wednesday, while Wheeler’s is set for May 14.
Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson as well as Doug Brainard, a retired Maumee police detective and former city councilman, are among those who have sent letters to the parole board asking that the pair remain behind bars.
Mr. Brainard helped investigate the arson along with Perrysburg Township police while he was looking into other allegations against Wheeler, a man he recalled as void of all emotion and very controlling.
“I think that he could still be considered dangerous. I don’t think it’s beyond him to be released and commit a crime again,” Mr. Brainard said, adding that the motivation for the fire — Rhoda Maddox was upset that she got yarn as a Christmas present from her mother while her brothers received a VCR — is simply unfathomable.
“I think what she did for the reason she did it — I just think she should not be released from prison,” Mr. Brainard said. “When you set a fire and you kill your entire family and the reason was over Christmas gifts, it was like, are you serious? I think it’s a crime that’s so horrific, I feel they need to stay in prison.”
Both of Rhoda Maddox’s children have passed away. A son she had with Wheeler committed suicide, while her daughter, who was 8 at the time of the fire, was raised by a friend, went to college, then died suddenly during her senior year of an embolism.
“That fire didn’t just take those seven people’s lives,” Deb Maddox said. “When something like this happens it doesn’t just take the lives they killed.”
Mr. Vinocur said people can write letters directly to the parole board or sign the online petition.
“Our goal is just to make sure the parole board understands they have family support, but we need community support too,” he said. “Someone needs to be a voice for these five children.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.