Andrew Dys

August 2, 2014

10 years after worst mass killing in York County, pain remains

In August 2004, lightning came out from a dark cloud named Jose Denis Meza, and three children were dead.

For 10 years, files that charted the progress of the Meza kids in the late 1990s and early 2000s have rested in a drawer in the office of Principal Annette Chinchilla at Riverview Elementary School in Fort Mill. She will never get rid of the proof that shows how all kids can learn.

The reports showed how Denia Meza, 14, and her little sister, Denise, 8, tried so hard in school during their years at Riverview. How they advanced, achieved. Their brother, Jayro, 5, was ready to start school in 2004 when the family abruptly moved to Rock Hill.

Their parents were immigrants from Nicaragua. The kids were learning English in school and thriving – but an arrest in Fort Mill sent the family fleeing.

“Those girls wanted to learn, they did learn,” Chinchilla said.

Chinchilla serves as a translator for Hispanic parents who struggle with English but are in America for the sole reason that kids should come first. She had daily contact with Marbely Meza, the children’s mother.

“I think about those children all the time,” she said. “I see those children.”

Marbely Meza was known at the school for doing anything to make sure her kids got a good education.

Jose Denis Meza, a control freak, a dominating husband and father, was the dark cloud in the red pickup waiting for the kids to bounce out the doors of Riverview after school.

In May 2004, Meza was a man accused of sexually assaulting his own daughter, Denia. A man arrested. A man ordered by a judge to stay away from his family. A man state Department of Social Services caseworkers were supposed to make sure stayed away. There were supposed to be site visits with interpreters who were supposed to explain it all to Marbely Meza.

Many of those site visits never took place. The interpreters who could have explained it all did not come.

Ten years ago Saturday, lightning came out from that dark cloud named Jose Denis Meza.

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, who has investigated scores of murders, called what police found before dawn on Aug. 9, 2004, the worst crime scene he had ever seen. The worst crime maybe ever in York County started with a fire at the house the Meza family lived in near Lake Wylie just weeks after moving there.

The fire was put out, but that wasn’t the end.

Firefighters found the Meza children – fully clothed, in their beds. Investigators would learn later that they had strong barbiturates and other drugs in their systems.

Their parents were on the floor. Both died from burns and smoke inhalation.

Five dead.

Charles Williamson, a York County Fire Marshal’s Office investigator, and all the staff there worked the brutal scene that morning. Nobody ever forgets something so rare and terrible as five bodies found in a fire. But the job of the fire investigator is to look at the entire scene, to determine if a crime has been committed in a fire, and to view fatalities up close.

That’s when the horror became even worse.

“As we had to remove the bodies of the children,” Williamson said, “we realized that their throats had been cut and we had never had something like that.”

There have been arsons and crime scenes at which a person or two died in a fire, said Carl Faulk, chief of the Newport Volunteer Fire Department, who was in command of the fire scene, but never locally before or since has he found five dead.

“And when there are kids in there – three kids – you just never can forget it,” Faulk said.

Neighbors were stunned, shocked. Some of those people still live on that quiet street. The destroyed home was razed, another built in its place.

Autopsies never showed conclusively if Denis Meza or Marbely Meza – or both – committed suicide. The deaths remain to this day “undetermined,” according to the York County Coroner’s Office.

The autopsies did show that Denia, 14, who had been sexually assaulted months earlier, had been assaulted again just days – maybe even hours – before her throat was cut and the fire was set to cover up the crimes.

Meza had been scheduled to go to court the week after the killings on the rape charge after his July 16, 2004, arrest. Conditions of his $20,000 bond and the DSS investigation both required that he have no contact with his family.

Still, he met his wife in the parking lot of a restaurant just around the corner. No one knows for sure if he demanded of his wife that she violate the bond conditions, violate DSS agreements that he stay away – or if she allowed him to see the kids out of love, duty or downright terror.

Deputies could only say after months of investigation – which included interviews, looking into cellphone records and more – that Denis Meza had bought the cans of gasoline that fueled the fire. That he had talked to his wife repeatedly on the phone Aug. 8 and Aug. 9, up through the time of the fire. That he had been at the home repeatedly in violation of court order. He bought the knockout drugs that the kids were administered before they were killed.

But investigators could not say for sure which parent killed the children, or if Marbely Meza was forced by her abusive, controlling husband to play a role in her children’s death. Or if she was just a terrified victim of her husband’s wrath who could not escape as the children could not escape.

“The father was definitely involved,” Williamson said, “but all involved could never say for sure what role the mother had – if any role.”

The answers died in the fire, along with the Meza family.

DSS officials would reprimand three employees, including two supervisors, for failing to follow procedures in the Meza case.

State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, devastated by the death of the three children, led the push for a legislative review of DSS after the deaths. Two years later, a Legislative Audit Council report found several problems with the agency statewide.

The State Law Enforcement Division and local prosecutors also reviewed what happened and determined no DSS workers should face criminal charges.

Changes were made at DSS because of the Meza deaths.

And now, a decade later, the Legislature is asking for another look at DSS child safety procedures after other children have died elsewhere in the state.

The death of the Meza family also revealed language problems at abuse shelters that house domestic violence victims, and how those victims can cope economically if the abuser is barred by the courts or DSS. Marbely Meza was an immigrant housewife who spoke almost no English, and had no way to feed her children without the income from her husband’s job as a landscaper.

Nobody except Simrill has brought up the Meza kids in talks over the possibility of breaking off the child protective services aspect of DSS to make sure that children do not die while under the agency’s care. Simrill also is pushing for periodic reviews to make sure children are kept safe.

“When you are dealing with children who are killed, the fact is that one death is too many,” Simrill said. “Three Meza children died that terrible day. Their deaths should not be forgotten, either.”

But people, governments, move on.

The Meza kids did not move on.

“We never forgot them here,” said Chinchilla, the principal at Riverview Elementary, where Denia and Denise learned to read and write English. “We never will forget them.”

So many in the Meza family in Nicaragua refused to believe that Jose Denis Meza was a cruel and vicious killer because he was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, had no history of such violence – just plain denial. News coverage in Nicaragua’s largest newspaper – five dead is an international story – reflected that denial.

Because of that strife, denial and just plain poverty, all five members of the Meza family were buried in the same plot at Forest Hills Cemetery in Rock Hill.

A single headstone is marked “Familia Meza” – The Meza Family.

In death, the father – who clearly was part of the killings – and the mother – who could not be ruled out – are in the same grave.

People at the time of the burials said Denis Meza changed for the better after finding religion with the Jehovah’s Witness church when he moved to York County in the early 1990s. He went back to Nicaragua and brought back Marbely and Denia.

No one can read on that lone headstone how Denia was born in Nicaragua and how, as a tiny child, she had to travel from Nicaragua to Honduras to Guatemala, then to Mexico and the United States, to try to find a life. She spent time in a Mexican jail as a child because she wanted to be free and live in America – to go to school, to learn, to dream.

Illegal? Certainly, but wrong?

The younger Meza children were born in America.

People who attended the burial a decade ago wept and sobbed. The daughters, so small, so much life ahead of them, were buried together in one casket. The son, Jayro, even smaller, was in a casket with his mother.

Denis Meza had a casket all his own.

But these children will not only be remembered in death on a stone with that awful father’s name just inches from their names.

Denia had moved on to Rawlinson Road Middle School in Rock Hill, but her learning, her history, the place she and her sister had blossomed, was Riverview. In coming days, Riverview Elementary School will decide how – when its new building opens in December – to honor the Meza kids, who sat in the front row of classes for years and raised their hands. The girls always clean, their hair braided, their faces shining. The struggles with English, then the successes.

It may be a stone, a grotto, a monument. It will name Denia and Denise, the students at Riverview, and Jayro.

Something will be done.

“Those kids were important when they were alive, they were important when they were killed,” Chinchilla said. “They are important, even today. They are a reminder that we owe each child the best we can give.

“They are a reminder of the potential of every child.”

But as the Legislature debates how best to protect South Carolina’s children, and as the governor talks about immigration, and as both branches talk about another study that shows S.C.’s child protective services among the worst in America, an anniversary of the death of three children of immigrants passes.

The question of whether South Carolina will give the best to other kids 10 years after the deaths of Denia, Denise and Jayro Meza will remain.

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