Boston jury convicts woman of setting fire that killed girlfriend’s two children

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 17, 2010

A Boston jury on Feb. 16 convicted a woman for setting a fire that killed her girlfriend's two young daughters nearly two years ago.

The Suffolk County jury convicted Nicole Chuminski on two counts of second-degree murder in connection with Acia and Sophia Johnson's deaths. The panel also convicted her of arson for setting the blaze and two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (smoke and flames) for injuries the girls' mother and brother sustained.

A judge will sentence Chuminski on Feb. 18. She faces a mandatory life sentence with the possibility of parole after 15 years on each murder conviction.

The fire in the South Boston triple-decker killed 14-year-old Acia Johnson and 2-year-old Sophia Johnson in April 2008. The children died holding each other in a bedroom closet. The fire burned them so badly the medical examiner needed dental records to make a positive identification.

The blaze also seriously injured Anna Reisopoulos, who is their mother and was Chuminski's girlfriend at the time. Acia's twin brother, Raymond Johnson, suffered less extensive injuries.

According to investigators, Chuminski and Reisopoulos had argued hours before the fire. Police arrested Chuminski after they discovered an accelerant on her clothing consistent with the fuel investigators found on a door frame in the dwelling.

"Throughout this investigation and prosecution, our goal was to speak for two murdered children," Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said after the jury announced its verdict. "Suffolk prosecutors, Boston police detectives, Boston firefighters, state police chemists, our victim-witness advocates and countless others worked toward the result we reached today. But as satisfied as we are with these verdicts, we know they will never replace the beautiful lives that were snuffed out on April 6, 2008."

Conley said the girls were part of what he called a dysfunctional family, but they loved each other deeply.

"These two young girls should not have died," Conley told news media as prosecutors David Fredette and Julie Higgins stood by. "I hope this gives their family some sense of justice and relief."

Fredette is in the district attorney office's homicide unit and Higgins is in its domestic violence unit. Catherine Yuan was the victim-witness advocate who worked on the case.

"Nicole and I are disappointed with the verdict," defense attorney William White, Jr., told EDGE. "We believed that there was reasonable doubt and that the evidence was weak and circumstantial. Fire investigators were unable to tell what accelerant was used to start the fire or how the accelerant was ignited. They had no evidence connecting Nicole to the crime. Nicole loved the relationship with the children and she cherished them. Although Nicole was abused in the relationship with Anna, she never had ill will or a notion to harm her or anyone else."

During the trial,

Fredette told jurors Chuminski was in "a fit of rage" after fighting with Reisopolous at a relative's wedding reception in Weymouth the night before the fire. The two women had been together for only a few months.

Fredette told the court the family asked Reisopoulos to leave after the argument. As a result, Chuminski "was embarrassed, she was humiliated, and she was later kicked out herself," the prosecutor said.

A few hours later, Chuminski started banging on Reisopoulos's door at of her South Boston home, he added. When no one responded, Chuminski then tried to call Reisopoulos on her cell phone, but she didn't answer.

Chuminski later went to a friend's house, "and all she kept talking about was the wedding and [the incident]," Fredette said. "She has drugs in her system and she's angry."

Fredette said Chuminski returned to the street outside the building sometime between 2:30 and 3 a.m. on April 6, 2008.

"She's banging on the door, no one's answering, and the kids aren't supposed to be there," the prosecutor said. "She wants to send a little bit of a message. She takes something with acetone in it and pours it on the steps and lights it. This was an intentionally set fire."

Fredette also told the jury when investigators interviewed Chuminski about the fire she "tried to distance herself" from the crime and changed her story several times.

Reisopolous, who is being held at a county jail on unrelated charges, and her son testified at the trial. They said they called for Acia Johnson to bring Sophia out, but she could not make it through the thick smoke. Firefighters later found the girls huddled together in the closet burned beyond recognition.

The Network/La Red, a Boston-based organization working to end same-sex partner abuse, said domestic violence occurs in 25 to 33 percent of relationships, a rate very similar to that heterosexual women experience.

"Partner abuse is often treated as if it is invisible in LGBT communities, but in reality, many in our communities live in fear of their partners, in fear for their safety and in fear for their loved ones," Beth Leventhal, the organization's director, told EDGE in a statement. "It's unfortunate that it's only after horrendous acts like the South Boston fire that we talk at a community level about this issue."

Kaitlin Nichols, director of organizing and education for The Network/La Red, further discussed how this case highlighted domestic violence in same-sex relationships.

"One thing we heard from the prosecutors in this trial is that the violence was escalating before the fire," she said. "Because we know that physical and emotional abuse tends to escalate and worsen over time, domestic-violence-related homicides are considered predictable and therefore preventable. One thing we can do as a community is learn the signs of abuse, which will make it easier to support someone who is being abused, sooner rather than later."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].