116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WATERLOO --- Four hours after a 9-year-old boy and his mother perished in a house fire, Denise Susanna O’Brien texted the boyfriend of hers who was meant to be the target of her lethal ire: “If i ain’t have bad luck id have nun at all.”
On Tuesday, a jury found her guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for setting the fatal fire over three years ago.
Assistant Black Hawk County Attorney Brian Williams said O’Brien, 45, lit fires to the back steps and front porch of a Dawson Street home in the early morning hours of April 22, 2018, because she was mad her boyfriend spent the night there with another woman.
“Karma comin 4 u … i hope it hurts,” she texted the boyfriend shortly before passersby spotted the flames on the porch shooting higher than the roof.
The boyfriend and the other woman escaped. But the fire trapped 9-year-old Jaykwon Sallis and his mother, 32-year-old Ashley Smith, in an upstairs bedroom. They died of smoke inhalation and burns.
Testimony in O’Brien’s trial began Nov. 17 with Jaykwon’s then 12-year-old sister describing how she, too, escaped the burning house by jumping from a second-floor window. Firefighters recounted finding the mother and son dead in their bedroom, and investigators explained how they found traces of gasoline on the back steps.
Police testified that they identified O’Brien in business surveillance videos only a few blocks from the Dawson Street home that morning as the fire trucks passed by.
O’Brien had told police she was at her West Fourth Street apartment at the time of the fire and denied any involvement. Her defense attorneys argued the person in the videos wasn’t O’Brien.
Jurors deliberated Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning before reaching a verdict shortly before noon.
O’Brien stood quietly as Judge Joel Dalrymple read the verdict aloud. Relatives of Jaykwon and Smith wiped tears as they embraced each other in the hallway after the courtroom emptied.
Each count of first-degree murder is punishable by a mandatory life prison sentence without the possibility of parole, and sentencing will be at a later date.