Fires can tear apart your life; they claim everything you own, impose harm upon your loved ones, and leave you in a haze of confusion as you wonder how the heck it all happened. For most homeowners, they’re essentially the worst case scenario.
Stevie Allman of Oakland, California, saw this firsthand. At age 52, she lost her home, her dogs, and her well-being as a fire left her in the hospital with serious burns while her home smoldered. She told investigators that she’d meddled with the wrong crowd—Oakland drug dealers—and they’d taken their revenge. Soon enough, however, the horrifying truth came out…
It was the middle of the night when first responders in Oakland, California, rushed to the scene of a house fire. There, they found neighbors helping the severely-burned, 52-year-old owner, Stevie Allman, escape the flames.
The neighbors tried to help, but they couldn’t do much for her: 15 percent of Stevie’s body had been covered in severe burns. Soon, emergency workers swooped in and rushed her to the hospital.
The fire was costly. Stevie’s two dogs didn’t make it, and most of her home was destroyed. That’s how, on July 1, 1997, she ended up alone, devastated—and homeless—in the hospital. Still, her wild story was far from over…
Police and firefighters quickly launched an investigation into the fire, and it wasn’t long before they found some intriguing clues. Stevie, they discovered, was an out-of-work secretary living in a bad part of town, and she had an interesting way of keeping busy.
City of Oakland / The Mercury News
From her bungalow window, Stevie would film drug dealers during their various interactions and then turn that footage over to the police. She wanted to make her neighborhood safer, but, she claimed, her work had attracted some unsavory attention.
In a statement, Stevie explained her fears plainly: “I have no doubt they [the drug dealers] intended to murder me and burn the house down on top of me. Their warped minds thought the act would clear the way to do their dirty dealing.”
To some investigators, the claims were suspicious. How could Stevie speak with such certainty? Still, initial investigations showed that the fire was, indeed, the result of arson. Her fears were warranted… but investigators kept digging.
The evidence for Stevie’s story seemed to check out. Twice before this particular fire, Stevie had summoned authorities to investigate fire bombs set off outside her house. It seemed like she’d been a target before…
ChasWolfenstein / YouTube
Eventually, Stevie’s story went public. While she was in the hospital, proud members of her community sent their new hero a whopping 100 cards and 92 checks, totaling $4,700. The police department raised $500 for her to get new dogs, and contractors even offered to rebuild her home. The outpouring of support was nothing short of incredible.
gfpeck / Flickr
With the community energized, law enforcement dedicated themselves to finding the culprits responsible for burning down the house. Then-governor Pete Wilson offered a $50,000 reward for information on the arsonists. Surely they’d have answers soon…
At first, no one responded to the governor’s reward, which was a bit odd. A reward that steep in a community like Stevie’s would go a long way. Perhaps no one wanted to face the wrath of the criminals who would stoop to arson?
However, just a few dozen miles south of Oakland, in a California town called Scott’s Valley, something strange happened: a sibling of Stevie’s—who was one of 10 siblings—filed a missing persons report after reading Stevie’s released statement.
Investigators began receiving tips from Stevie’s siblings and neighbors that left them scratching their heads. For instance, Stevie’s older sister, Leotta Belleville, told authorities that her sister’s dogs weren’t the only other things living in that home…
Leotta claimed that their younger sister, Sarah Mitchell, also had lived in the house—and it was a fact that neighbors corroborated. That was when everything started to click for investigators…
The authorities couldn’t believe it. They realized they’d never verified who they’d been talking to all of this time. They’d just taken Stevie at her word that she was exactly who she said she was…
Michael Short / The SF Chronicle
Investigators then began approaching the case from a new angle. As they learned, Sarah and Stevie had been living together for 20 years. Siblings noted that Sarah had stolen from Stevie in the past, even pretending to be her older sister to gain access to accounts.
With this new information in mind, the authorities obtained a warrant to search the charred remains of of Stevie and Sarah’s home. There, with the help of a search dog, they discovered their next piece of evidence: a badly-burned freezer that was duct-taped shut.
As carefully as they could, investigators cut away at the tape on the freezer and peered inside. Whatever they had expected to find inside, this wasn’t it. In fact, this was something so much worse…
Stuffed inside the freezer was the charred body of the real Stevie Allman, whom Sarah had bludgeoned to death, before assuming her identity. Authorities confirmed Sarah’s true identity by matching her fingerprints to those from a 1971 prostitution conviction.
Police alleged that Sarah killed Stevie and tried to burn the evidence when her older sister threatened to cut her off from money. Eventually, Sarah confessed and a jury convicted her of first-degree murder, sentencing her to life without the possibility of parole.
It’s a shame that money tore apart a family and did more damage than anything ever could. Luckily, Sarah faced some form of justice for her crimes.
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