Hardly a month goes by in which The Dispatch doesn’t pass along to our readers the requests of charitable groups seeking financial donations. Sometimes the requests come from community members on behalf of families or individuals that are recovering from personal calamities. Whatever the cause, we always are sure that the need is legitimate and that donations will be going into the right pockets. That firewall is necessary because of the regrettable fact that some people take advantage of the kindness of strangers, which is why we’re passing along the following cautionary tale.
Melinda Sayers, 37, was charged last month by Pierce County authorities with arson and presenting false insurance claims in connection with a fire at her family’s South Hill-area home. Allegedly starting the fire and then collecting insurance money afterward is part of the lamentable story that prosecutors and investigators tell about Sayers. Almost as troubling in their account is their claim that she also collected donations online through a social media page from well-wishers who thought they were helping someone in need who instead was apparently living a lie at others’ expense.
Here’s the rap against Sayers, as detailed by county prosecutors:
Last year, she gave birth prematurely to her daughter, who then was hospitalized for nearly a year. Last month, on April. 1, the day before the child was scheduled to be released from the hospital and sent home, Sayers started a fire by lighting a candle in her living room and opening the valve on a medical oxygen tank that was intended for her daughter’s use. Sayers called 9-1-1 to report the fire and left the home with her 2-year-old son.
In news coverage of the fire, Sayers was interviewed by several media outlets (The Dispatch wasn’t among them) and was portrayed by some as a hero for saving her son. “Supermom” became her nickname in some news reports..The story took on an added emotional dimension when her infant daughter died at the hospital one day after the fire.
Police detectives saw things differently. When Sayers talked to them, she told them she opened her bedroom door and saw black smoke, closed the door, lowered her son to the ground from her bedroom window and then climbed out. But investigators were skeptical of her story when they discovered a handheld butane lighter on the living room couch..When they interviewed her again, she admitted to starting the fire. Her explanation: She didn’t want her daughter to come home.
In Superior Court last month, Sayers pleaded not guilty to the charges against her and was ordered held in lieu of $200,000 bail. An investigation of Sayers’ financial gain from the fire was continuing.
Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist notes that defendants are innocent until they’re proven guilty. But if the charges against Sayers are true, he said, “this is another reminder to trust but verify before donating money to people or causes.”
Dispatch editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 360-832-4697