Crime

Family defends arson, murder suspect

Jacob “Matt” Morgan is incapable of setting a fire or planning to kill anybody, a family member said Wednesday, two days after Morgan, 17, was charged with arson and murder in the death of his 14-month-old half-brother, Josh.

Morgan loved Josh “with everything he had,” said Myke Hill, Josh’s father and the fiance of Morgan’s mother.

“We don’t think he did this,” Hill said. “He didn’t have the mental ability to plan this.”

Morgan has learning disabilities and has been treated for “mental health” most of his life, Hill said. Morgan was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and several other disorders, he said.

Before his arrest Monday night, Morgan was taking night classes at Rock Hill High School and had a job working on the event staff at Winthrop University. At home, he was a great older brother who loved giving Josh piggyback rides around the house and making him laugh, Hill said.

Warrants allege Morgan set fire to the mobile home on Friday morning on Catawba Church Road in the Lesslie area “with malice aforethought,” intending to kill his half-brother. Investigators based their arrests, in part, on Morgan’s own statements.

Hill and other members of Morgan’s family have concerns about how those statements were collected from Morgan.

At 3 p.m. on Monday, Hill, Morgan and his mother, Julie Morgan, reported to the sheriff’s office to give their statements about what happened on Friday. While Hill and Julie Morgan were done in about an hour, they waited for nearly five hours for Matt Morgan to be finished.

“The officers, their stories kept changing,” Hill said.

Hill and Julie Morgan were told that Matt Morgan’s story kept changing and that perhaps the fire had been started by a pillow leaning against a heater. Just before 8 p.m., officers said Morgan was under arrest for “intentional and voluntary murder” of Joshua.

Morgan, who turned 17 in February but has the “mental ability of a 12-year-old,” according to Hill, was not allowed to see or speak to Hill or his mother and was not accompanied by a lawyer throughout the “interrogation,” Hill said.

“He cries if you shout at him,” Hill said of Morgan. “I can only imagine how he was feeling with three officers asking him all kinds of questions.”

Officers told Hill and Julie Morgan that Matt Morgan wrote out a long statement, detailing how he planned to set the house on fire to kill Josh, but Hill said Morgan can barely write a paragraph. His disabilities make spelling, reading and writing very difficult. Hill said officers told them they could see the statement if Morgan or his attorney showed it to them.

On Tuesday, 16th Circuit Chief Public Defender Harry Dest said his office will be representing Morgan.

Hill said family members haven’t spoken to an attorney yet nor have they been allowed to see Morgan since he was taken to give his statement at 3 p.m. Monday.

If Morgan had intentionally set the fire, his behavior on Friday didn’t make any sense, Hill said.

When Hill arrived at the home, Morgan was with a neighbor, barefoot, covered in soot with his hair singed from the heat. He said he woke up to a house filled with smoke and tried to get to the back bedroom, where Josh was sleeping, but couldn’t.

He ran outside to alert the neighbors, then tried to get back in the house to help Josh, but the fire engulfed the home in a matter of minutes, according to neighbors.

“You don’t do things like that when you set a fire,” Hill said.

Morgan is currently in custody at the York County Detention Center. A $50,000 bond was set on his arson charge, but no bond on the murder charge. Only a circuit court judge can set bond on a murder charge, and Morgan only has been before a magistrate judge.

Law enforcement officials and first responders have said this entire ordeal, including the baby’s death and Morgan’s alleged role in it, has been very trying.

Sheriff Bruce Bryant said some people at the scene, including Morgan, were allegedly screaming at emergency responders on Friday after those responders could not save the child.

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.

Officials have yet to give information on the cause of the fire. The baby’s official cause of death has not been released, pending additional testing.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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