Over a year ago, I happened upon a tragic story from 1999 involving the deaths of three young children and their father in a house fire in Pioneer. It was shocking and incredibly sad to read. The more I looked into the story, the more disturbing it became (the parents estranged, death threats made by the father towards the mother, and violence). Even though I oddly had no memory of the fire and have no connection to the family, I felt extremely uneasy about it all. I decided to write a series of letters to the editor expressing my feelings about it, to remember the children, and as a small gesture toward hopefully preventing future tragedies. This story is profoundly sad. I acknowledge that many people may be upset by having to revisit this and to read what I have to say about it, especially after almost 20 years having passed. Please know that my intent is to help, not to divide, while fully understanding that I’m re-opening a deep wound to the community. I’m aware that I may fail in my effort.
Early on the morning of September 14, 1999, the house at 25605 Sherwood Drive in Pioneer was a raging inferno. Neighbors called 911. But by time firefighters arrived the house was on the verge of collapsing and firefighters could not even get close to the fire due to its intensity and had to wait until the next day to search through the rubble. According to fire officials at the time, were it not for the cool, damp conditions that morning, the fire may have created far more destruction in the area. Timothy Halstead and his three children, Haven (age 8), Jordan (age 5), and Elijah (age 4) Halstead were inside the house. All four perished. Neighbors noticed that the gate to the property was closed. They also noticed that Halstead’s truck was parked across the entrance, blocking entry. Neighbors could not recall ever seeing the gate closed or seeing the truck parked in that way. The smell of gasoline was strong, according to witnesses. Investigators eventually concluded that the fire was deliberately set and that an unknown accelerant was used but could not officially declare the deaths a murder-suicide. Authorities could not determine a cause of death for the children because of the extreme amount of damage done to their bodies by the fire. However, somehow, blunt-force trauma and puncture trauma were ruled out as causes of death of the children. Additionally, poisoning was ruled out as a cause of death for Haven Halstead. The official cause of death for Tim Halstead was by “inhalation of products of combustion.” Halstead and the children’s mother, Alyse Alexander, were separated at the time. Halstead had once told a friend that he would kill Alyse if she took his kids away from him. There are affidavits from Alyse stating that he threatened to kill her. He was convicted of beating a neighbor who had allegedly had a relationship with Ms. Alexander. She also had a restraining order against Halstead. It was also alleged that Tim Halstead was abusing alcohol and/or drugs. If you believe, like I do, that Tim Halstead committed a triple-murder-suicide, I think there are enough dots to connect for a reasonable person to assume he had some sort of mental health issue as well. However, it’s only an assumption. One thing is clear: despite all that family, friends, the legal system, therapists, law enforcement, and others knew about this family, no one foresaw Tim Halstead hurting his children. Though, for some there was a belief that there was no way Tim Halstead would purposely kill his children. It was either an accident or maybe even murder by an unknown assailant. We know that suicide often defies prediction. Perhaps this deadly act fits into that narrative?
I was 17 at the time of the deaths. Somehow, I have no recollection of it or the aftermath. “Wtf?!” That was my first thought when I read about the fire. How could I have missed something like this? For someone that still remembers a lot about my teen years, it was bizarre that I hadn’t at least heard about it from someone. But, I hadn’t heard about it from anyone; not in 1999, not in 2009, or now. The fire, the deaths, and the aftermath were reported in the Ledger Dispatch, the Stockton Record, the Sacramento Bee, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Reno Gazette-Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. Investigative reporting was also done by the Los Angeles Daily Journal, which featured two stories by Cheryl Romo published in November 1999: one titled “Suffer the Children” which reported on the children’s deaths and sought to figure out what led to them. The other, titled “When Doves Cry,” detailed Amador County’s problem in properly dealing with domestic violence. The proximity of the tragedy- Pioneer, Amador County- added to the level of unease I felt. Something like that could happen here? What’s more, I have a son who is the same age now (4) as Elijah was when he died. The suffering of children has definitely taken on new meaning since my wife and I had a child of our own. Lastly, not long after I read about these children, I asked myself, “How could this have happened?” This family’s issues were known to the legal system and other professionals involved with the family. Separations, divorces, and child custody matters can be nasty and traumatic, but no one is supposed to die. Needless to say, this story captured my attention like no other that I can recall. In fact, it has haunted me for over a year now.
Please know that I’m not an investigative journalist and I don’t pretend to be. I’m not presenting new information here, I’m just a regular citizen looking at an old case in search of answers. Obviously, even if I wanted to, I don’t have the resources to do a deep dive into this tragedy in the way that Dateline NBC or PBS’s Frontline, for example, tackle controversial topics. Perhaps something like that was needed in 1999 or 2000. But now? I don’t know what purpose it would serve, other than to open a wound that I’m already re-opening. I’m not sure it would bring any sort of closure to anyone involved, but who knows. Maybe there is truly nothing to follow up on. I don’t doubt that everyone involved in the investigation of the deaths did anything but their best to determine what happened. Perhaps I’m just used to being able to know virtually everything about anything just by using Google. And/or, maybe I’m just on my own selfish yet futile journey to bring meaning to something that defies meaning. But, when someone dies tragically, especially children, we often try to do something to try to prevent future tragedies, right? We use the heartbreak as an opportunity for reform, to help others, to enrich lives, and to avoid the death(s) from being in vain. Maybe I’m in the minority in thinking the fire was foul play by Tim Halstead. Maybe most folks think at the very least that he didn’t murder his own children. Is that why there is no permanent public memorial or something like a domestic violence/intimate partner violence (IPV) or mental health awareness campaign in the children’s honor? Is there no issue to reform or for which to raise awareness? Perhaps the only issue here is one person gone completely off the rails; an act that defied prediction or intervention. If the fire and the deaths were indeed somehow a tragic accident, it would make sense that no one linked any kind of public IPV awareness campaign or mental health awareness effort to the tragedy. I’m coming into this almost 20 years late, so there is much I don’t know and much of which I’m not aware. I know that in the days after their deaths a memorial service attended by about 200 people was held at Pioneer Elementary, where Haven and Jordan attended, for the three children. I can’t imagine the sadness and anguish from that day. We don’t need a tragedy to raise awareness for something or help people in need. However, this tragedy has had a profound effect on me. It’s difficult for me to grasp the enormity of what I’m writing about. I hesitated even sending this to the ACN. My thoughts may have been better off kept to myself, but here they are anyway.
My hope in writing these letters is to try to remember and maybe even re-kindle an effort(s) that I’m not aware of that were made in the aftermath of the deaths of these children to honor them and help children and families in Amador County. I have three more letters on this subject that hopefully will appear in ACN some point.