The half-brother of a 14-month-old boy killed last week in a Lesslie-area mobile home fire has been charged with murder and arson after an investigation uncovered that the 17-year-old intentionally set fire to the home while the child was sleeping, authorities said.
The arrest comes just days after the fire that killed Joshua Hill on Friday morning in a mobile home park off Catawba Church Road near Lesslie.
The York County Sheriff’s Office arrested Jacob Matthew Morgan, 17, on Monday, police records show.
Morgan will be tried as an adult in criminal court, said Willy Thompson, 16th Circuit deputy solicitor. Morgan turned 17 years old on Feb. 17, making him an adult under state law.
He is accused of setting a fire that officials say fully engulfed a home in the Apple Valley Mobile Home Park around 8:30 a.m. Friday. The home was destroyed and fire personnel have said they could not get inside in time to save the child.
In South Carolina, a murder conviction carries a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison and up to life without parole. However, Morgan’s young age saves him a potential death penalty case in York County because prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty for people under the age of 18, under state law.
Morgan had an initial appearance before a magistrate judge Tuesday afternoon in a courtroom adjacent to the York County jail in the basement of the Moss Justice Center in York. He was found to be indigent and the court appointed him a public defender.
Morgan has not previously been arrested in South Carolina, according to state records.
He is being held without bond, awaiting an opportunity to go before a circuit court judge. Magistrates cannot set bonds for defendants in murder cases.
The York County Public Defender’s Office will conduct its own investigation into the fire and circumstances around Joshua Hill’s death, said 16th Circuit Chief Public Defender Harry Dest.
Public defenders have not yet studied any evidence in the case, said B.J. Barrowclough, deputy public defender. The “loss of life, particularly the loss of life of a child, is a huge tragedy,” Barrowclough said Tuesday.
The case has taken its toll on local fire and police officials “who tried so desperately to save Joshua’s life,” said York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant on Tuesday. “It’s tragic that such a young life was lost in this fire. Our prayers go out to the family of Joshua Hill.”
The intentional killing of a helpless toddler is “a truly terrible” act and one of the worst he’s seen in his 43 years in law enforcement, Bryant said.
“People, what they will do, never ceases to amaze me,” he said. “This family has been dealt a terrible blow. They were dealing with the death of the baby, and funeral arrangements, and now they have to deal with the fact that it is his brother who we have charged with committing this crime.”
Bryant added that he is proud of the volunteer firefighters and one of his deputies who was one of the first people on the scene. The deputy tried to get into the burning home to rescue the boy, but she could not breach the flames and heat that engulfed the trailer with the child inside.
Some people at the scene, including the half-brother now charged with murder and arson, were allegedly screaming at emergency responders on Friday after those responders could not save the child.
“She did everything she could do – everything – to try and save that baby and it has been very hard on her,” Bryant said. “She has lived through hell thinking about what she was not able to do. And now, this.”
Lesslie Fire Chief Tommy White said Tuesday that the news that the fire was set intentionally is “horrible.”
“My guys risked their lives that day and now we are finding out that it was done on purpose,” White said, adding that firefighters could have died trying to save the child.
Morgan is accused of setting the fire “with malice aforethought” to kill his half-brother while the child slept inside, arrest warrants state. Investigators based the arrests, in part, on Morgan’s own statements, according to the warrants.
Local authorities investigated the fire along with the State Law Enforcement Division, the state Fire Marshal’s Office, the York County Fire Marshal’s Office and the York County coroner.
The day of the fire, a neighbor, Jessica Godbold, told The Herald that she heard screams and saw smoke. Godbold lives three doors down from the home where Joshua Hill died. She said on Friday that she saw someone going back into the house after flames broke out.
She identified that person as “Matt,” the child’s older brother. Matt’s hair, Godbold said, was singed by the fire.
Godbold said she tried to help a sheriff’s deputy – a first responder – get into the mobile home through a window. But, the glass exploded, she said, adding “it almost hit me, it was horrible.”
A man who identified himself on Friday as the child’s grandfather asked for the community to pray for his family. He added, “My grandson was full of life and laughter.”
(Rock Hill) Herald staff members Anna Douglas, Rachel Southmayd, Andrew Dys and Don Worthington contributed