Police: Ex-con started fire that killed family

Rivera

Abdu Rivera hasn’t exactly been lying low since someone firebombed an Olney rowhouse in November 2003, igniting a blaze that claimed the lives of five family members, including a 3-month-old girl.

Rivera, a Fairhill guy who has been living on the 4700 block of Ashburner St. in Holmesburg of late, beat two unrelated murder raps in 2004 and ’05, as well as assault cases in ’05 and ’06, court records show.

Separately, he was arrested twice more in 2005 and ’07 for carrying guns, despite a prior felony manslaughter conviction. Prosecutors allowed him to plead down from the most serious charges in both of those cases, from which he emerged with a maximum prison sentence of six years.

Rivera found himself back behind bars last week and is facing perhaps his most heinous criminal charges yet. Police arrested him on April 25 for setting the fire almost 13 years ago that killed John Santiago, his wife, his mother, his brother and his infant daughter.

In a news conference at Philadelphia Police Headquarters, Capt. James Clark of the Homicide Unit announced that cold-case detectives had finally convinced witnesses to speak about the horrible Nov. 18, 2003, episode and, as a result, were able to pin the blame on the long-suspected Rivera. Clark said that the ongoing investigation could result in additional arrests.

A bar fight between Santiago, 23, and the then-20-year-old Rivera precipitated the Molotov cocktail-style bombing, authorities contend. Santiago was a trained boxer. As a result, Rivera ended up on the losing end of the bout, which occurred near Second and Ontario streets. Santiago also fended off a couple of Rivera’s friends during the scuffle, Clark said.

Shortly after 3:30 a.m., Rivera allegedly threw fuel-filled containers through the front door of Santiago’s home on the 100 block of Widener St. in Olney and ignited the blaze. Flames blocked the front door and the foot of the stairs to the second floor. The back door had been bolted shut, trapping eight occupants.

Firefighters battled their way to the second floor, where they found the victims. Francesca DeJesus, 41, Santiago’s mother, was in a middle bedroom. Santiago and his 17-year-old wife, Clarissa Davilla, were in a rear bedroom. Paramedics rushed all three to area hospitals, where they died. Firefighters later found Santiago’s and Davilla’s baby, Jacquelyn Enid Santiago, dead in the rear bedroom.

Four other relatives escaped the house, including 17-year-old La Salle University student Alex Santiago, 17, who suffered burns to over 70 percent of his body and smoke inhalation. His injuries led to his Dec. 1, 2003, death. The three other escapees inhaled smoke, but survived.

One day after the fire, the Inquirer quoted then-Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston stating that fire investigators found the remains of a plastic container that smelled of gasoline. There were smoke detectors in the house, but they did not have batteries. Alex Santiago was the one who alerted his sleeping relatives about the fire, Hairston said.

In October 2014, the Citizens Crime Commission announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist. The director of the commission reportedly told 6ABC that homicide detectives were trying to contact one person who called 911 on the morning of the fire and told the operator, “They just fire bombed the house,” as if the caller had witnessed the crime.

Clark acknowledged last week that police suspected Rivera in the crime, but authorities couldn’t charge him in the absence of witness corroboration.

Rivera is held without bail at the city’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road and is awaiting a preliminary hearing on May 11. ••