May 08, 2003
WKU Student's Death Called Murder
Victim's Aunt Feels Frustrated
by Mark Pitsch, The Courier-Journal
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - Western Kentucky University officials yesterday called the death of freshman Melissa K. "Katie" Autry in a dormitory fire a murder.
"We've treated this as a criminal investigation from the beginning, and with Katie's death it's now being classified as a homicide," said Bob Skipper, a university and campus police spokesman.
Autry, who suffered third-degree burns in the fire in her Hugh Poland Hall dorm room early Sunday, died Wednesday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. She was from Pellville, Ky., in Hancock County. Police say the fire was set.
Autry's aunt, Virginia White, expressed frustration yesterday with the pace of the investigation and the limited information that university officials have released about the case.
"This makes the fifth day and the police are no closer to finding out who done this, and I know from experience the longer they wait to name a prime suspect the harder it gets," White said.
University police are leading the investigation with assistance from Kentucky State Police, the state Fire Marshal's office, the Bowling Green police and fire departments and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Skipper said he understands White's frustration. He said university officials "are frustrated as well. . . . (But) this is not solved in a one-hour time slot. It will take time."
He said police have heard a number of stories about what happened the night of fire. "Some of these details we can't nail down," Skipper said. ". . . . Some of the information has changed over the course of the investigation."
Campus Chief Robert Deane said at a news conference last night that investigators "have a theory" about the cause of the fire, and he said results of an autopsy on Autry could help confirm the theory.
He said police have interviewed more than 100 people, but there are still others whom they want to interview, including students who may have already left campus.
He said police are trying to track down as many students as possible.
"We are going to do everything in our power to bring the person to justice who did this," Deane said.
Investigators are sifting through evidence gathered from various locations, Deane said, but he offered no details.
Deane noted that the fire and water damage to Autry's room "does not help the investigation."
Deane spent 27 years on the Detroit police force, including 10 years working homicides, and is a criminal investigator for the Army Reserve, Skipper said.
Lt. Eric Wolford of the Kentucky State Police office in Bowling Green said state police would assume control of the investigation only if campus police ask them.
Deane said his force should be the lead agency because the fire occurred on campus. He said the campus department has "excellent investigators with plenty of skill."
Wolford said investigators are making some progress.
"Some leads have been followed up and we've eliminated . . . several people through interviews and gained other information that will have to be followed up on," Wolford said.
The university yesterday posted fliers offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for the fire that caused Autry's death. The reward will be paid by the university's residence office and the Bowling Green Police Department's Crime Stoppers program.
WKU's graduation will take place as scheduled tomorrow, and students will continue taking final exams through today, Skipper said.
He said all university dorms are locked 24 hours a day, and residents need a key to get in. But Western hasn't urged students or faculty to take any other precautions. A campus police officer is stationed at Poland Hall 24 hours a day, and two people rather than one sit at the front desk.
Skipper acknowledged that whoever set the fire might still be on campus and might be living in the dorm.
"I don't know that you can guarantee anyone that they're completely safe, but we've taken what we feel are appropriate precautions to ensure safety," he said.
Friends said Autry went to a party at Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house sometime early Sunday. She was escorted back to her dorm room, 214, from the party. The fire occurred about 4 a.m.
White said Autry and her younger sister, Lisa, had been living with her foster father, Jim Inman, Hancock County's 911 emergency center communications director, for about 10 years. Inman declined to comment yesterday.
White, who said she is the sister of Autry's biological mother, said she had been with Autry since she arrived at Vanderbilt and was with her when she died Wednesday at 7:10 p.m. CDT. Lisa and Barbie White, Virginia White's daughter, also were with Autry when she died.
"I didn't want to leave her because I was afraid she would die with no one there," White said. "I didn't want her to die alone."
White said Autry underwent surgery Sunday to relieve pressure that had built up in her torso as a result of the burns. Autry had surgery Tuesday to remove burned skin, she said. Because doctors couldn't move her to the operating room, they sterilized her room in the burn unit and performed the surgery there, White said.
But doctors noticed that Autry, who was in a medically induced coma, began deteriorating that afternoon, and she died that evening, White said.
White said Autry was a cheerleader at Hancock County High School and was active in the local Baptist church in Pellville, which White called "a real protective environment."
Autry liked being on her own at Western, White said.
"She got a taste of freedom and she liked it," White said. "She liked saying when Katie got out of bed, where Katie went and what Katie did. . . . She liked being on her own and making her own decisions."
Students held a candlelight vigil Wednesday night and continued mourning her death yesterday.
"It was sad last night and it's sad today," said Shalen Alsup, 20, a sophomore from Owensboro who lives in Poland Hall. "I can't wait to get out of this building. I don't feel safe anymore."