May 25, 2006

Autistic Teen Struggled To Get Out Of Blazing Apartment

By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express (subscribe)

ALBANY, OREGON--Christopher DeGroot, the 19-year-old autistic youth locked in his parents' apartment while it burned (see earlier story), apparently tried desperately to get out before he was rescued.

Jeris Chavez, a neighbor who lives in the same apartment complex, told the Corvallis Gazette-Times that she and a cousin were in their back yard on Mother's Day when they saw smoke coming from the DeGroot family's apartment.

Chavez immediately called 9-1-1.

"I told them to get here fast cause I knew there was a kid inside," she told the newspaper Tuesday, adding that she saw the teenager's father leave the apartment about a half hour earlier.

Chavez, who has a 9-year-old grandson with autism, said her cousin could hear 19-year-old Christopher Air DeGroot pounding on the wall from inside the apartment. Neighbors had difficulty getting the door open because Christopher's parents had installed a dead bolt lock that required a key to open it from the inside. The windows had also been locked.

Christopher died in a Portland hospital last Friday from burns he sustained during that fire.

Investigators determined that the fire had been set with some sort of paper in the living room.

Prosecutor Michael Wynhausen said Monday that the time from when Nicolaas and Agnes DeGroot left to the time the fire started indicated that they started the blaze and then "sealed" Christopher inside alone.

Both parents face one count of first-degree arson. Each also faces a charge of first-degree manslaughter -- upgraded Monday from second-degree. They are now being held in Linn County jail on $500,000 security each.

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Posted on May 25, 2006