Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Rockell Coleman’s attorney.
This month makes four years since three young boys died in a Decatur house fire.
Their mother, Rockell Coleman, was at work when her Misty Valley home went up in flames because her children had ignited some leaves to keep warm.
Less than 24 hours after learning three of her five children had died, Coleman was charged with felony murder for two of their deaths: Jabari, age 3, and 4-year-old Preston. Jarvis, 10, died three days after the fire, and a third felony charge was added. Coleman’s two other children, then 4 and 9, survived the blaze.
The mother, 28 at the time, was struggling to make ends meet and had been working the night of the Dec. 12, 2014 fire.
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Nearly four years after the fatal flames, in August 2018, Coleman pleaded guilty to three counts involuntary manslaughter, two counts cruelty to children and one count making false statements, according to online DeKalb County court records.
“It is a tragic case where an overwhelmed young mother of five lost three of her kids,” Coleman’s attorney Daryl Queen told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an email. “Jarvis, the oldest child, was 10 at the time and regardless no one could anticipate that within 15 minutes of her leaving, an accidental fire ... would begin.”
DeKalb prosecutors depicted Coleman as an unfit mom, who frequently left her children at home, sometimes lighting fires, while she went out with friends.
She was sentenced to 10 years with five to serve in prison.
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Queen denied the claim of the fire’s origin, saying experts proved the power was on inside the home and that the fire did not start with leaves.
At the time, law enforcement and child advocate experts questioned Coleman’s arrest, but soundly agreed that, while the circumstance were heartbreaking, she was ultimately responsible for her children.
Coleman’s case came the same year another DeKalb mom, Angel Johnson, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after her two of her children died in a Stone Mountain house fire in 2010, The AJC previously reported.
In that case, Johnson and her boyfriend locked three of her four children in a bedroom and went to a fast-food restaurant with her baby, according to reporting at the time. While they were gone, something in the bedroom got too close to a space heater, and caught fire. A 2-year-old in the room survived but was hospitalized with burns.
Johnson was sentenced to 35 years; she’s serving 20 of those years in prison.
In Coleman’s case, she told DeKalb police and fire investigators she left the children in the care of a roommate while she worked a job handing out fliers advertising tax services, The AJC previously reported. At the time, her attorneys said phone and work records backed up “that claim.
Police later discovered there was no babysitter.
At a January 2015 court hearing, Coleman’s mother said her daughter struggled financially and was taking classes to prepare for a job in income tax preparation.
The hearing also revealed Coleman’s family had been reported to the Division of Family and Children Services.
In June 2013, DFCS received a complaint that the children were repeatedly left at home with inadequate food.
Case workers found the complaint unsubstantiated, but required Coleman to undergo a plan that included parenting classes, according to previous reporting.
In April 2014, when case workers discovered Coleman wasn’t complying with the plan, DFCS asked a judge to take the children away. The judge denied the request, saying she did not see the harm to the children.
The 400-page DFCS case file also revealed Coleman’s children frequently set fires at the Decatur home, begged neighbors for food and in one instance one of the children was crawling down the street in a diaper.
If she serves her full sentence, Coleman would be released in August 2023.
“What fate didn’t take from Ms. Coleman the system did as she has not had contact with her surviving children since December 2014,” Queen said. “Is there any greater punishment than this lady to live with such an extreme degree of loss for the remainder of her life?”
— Reporting from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution archives were used in this article.
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