SOUTH CHICAGO — The man who set the South Chicago fire that killed three children and a man did so because he paid a woman $10 for sex that he didn't receive, according to prosecutors.
Reginald Hester, 51, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated arson, accused of setting fire to a large apartment complex on Aug. 23. He was ordered held without bail Wednesday.
A 7-year-old girl, a 4-year-old girl, a 3-month-old girl and a 56-year-old man died in the fire.
Around midnight on Aug. 23, Hester was walking down the street near the apartment building in the 8100 block of South Essex Avenue when he offered a woman $10 for sex, said Cook County prosecutor Becky Walters.
The woman agreed, and the two walked to her apartment in the building that was later set ablaze. She went inside her place to get condoms but never returned to Hester, Walters said.
Hester was left near a rear porch that held cardboard boxes, a couch, a grill and lighter fluid. He is accused of setting a fire near the rear porch and in an interior stairway of the apartment complex, Walters said.
Hester was able to get into the building because the lock on the front door was not working, she said.
A witness in the building smelled smoke, looked out her window and saw Hester walking away from the building in a red sweater.
He was wearing the same clothes witnesses saw him in and smelled of smoke, she said.
After seeing that a fire was burning through both the building's staircases, several people jumped from the windows of their homes, sustaining injuries. There are two surviving victims, including the father of two of the deceased girls, who jumped from a window with his 3-month-old daughter in hand.
With help from two witnesses, police picked up Hester in the 7600 block of South Shore Drive at 7:15 a.m. the day of the fire, Walters said. But he was released pending further investigation, she said.
Hester was picked up by officers Monday in the first block of North Waller Avenue, police said in a news release. During his second time in police custody, Hester admitted to detectives that he started the fire, Walters said.
Hester told officers he started the fire because "he was pissed and wanted to scare that b----," Walters said.
He has five prior felonies, Walters said.
The fire devastated families and shocked the South Side block.
Michael Watson, 36, jumped out of a third-story window holding his youngest daughter, 3-month-old Melanie Watson, in his arms, witnesses said. The infant was later pronounced dead, and Watson was hospitalized in critical condition.
Firefighters later found Melanie's two sisters, 4-year-old Madison Watson and 7-year-old Shaniyah Staples, dead in an upstairs apartment.
Kirk Johnson, 56, was also found dead.
One resident, Byron West, said he helped a 45-year-old man to safety after the man jumped from a second-floor window and broke several bones.
"It was just pandemonium," said West, who lives on the second floor of the U-shaped apartment complex. "I couldn't understand why people were jumping out the windows, instead of just going out the back. Then someone said, 'They set the back porch on fire, too!'"
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