Criminal Charges Sought Against Landlord for Lack of Smoke Alarms

Purcell Okla house fire
KWTV News 9

Criminal charges are being sought against a landlord in Oklahoma after three young girls were hospitalized with burns in a fire at one of his rental homes, which authorities say lacked a working smoke alarm. Agent Judah Sheppard with the Oklahoma Fire Marshal's office told an Oklahoma City TV station this week, "We believe based on statistics, the smoke detector would have given them an earlier warning and possibly gotten them all out without any injuries." It's the first time that Sheppard has sought such charges against a landlord in seven years on the job, reports KWTV News 9.

The girls were airlifted to Oklahoma City, then Dallas, for treatment of their injuries in the Nov. 20 fire in Purcell, Okla., according to police. Their mother, Jennifer Epperson, was also reported to have suffered burns in trying to help the girls escape. A neighbor told KWTV that Epperson credited their escape to a neighbor who noticed the flames as he passed by at about 2 a.m. and knocked on their door to alert them.

Although the fire was ruled accidental, Agent Sheppard says that the Eppersons' landlord, Neil McElderry, owns other properties which, tenants have told him, also lack working smoke alarms. McElderry is hardly the exception, Sheppard said. "This is a huge problem across the state of Oklahoma that landlords are not putting this in for people." If charged, Epperson would face a fine.

If the allegations are true in McElderry's case, you might expect him to know better. Though Sheppard said that the landlord owns at least 200 rentals in the Purcell area, that's not McElderry's only business. He's also, says KWTV, the owner of an insurance agency. [See the station's report in the video below.]

Although Oklahoma is far from alone in requiring landlords to keep smoke detectors working, fire safety experts advise renters to check to make sure detectors are present and operating when they move in and, if not, that they ask landlords install and maintain them. (Many local fire departments even offer programs to install them.) It's also recommended that renters themselves test the detectors monthly.