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Rubble of a House Fire Offers Tantalizing Clues

A smoke detector with no battery, guidebooks for setting fires and making bombs are found. Callers offer tips about the owner.

November 17, 2002|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

CARY, Ill. — THE STORY SO FAR

Fire destroyed John Veysey's house in Cary, Ill., leaving his wife and 3-year-old son struggling for life. Veysey himself survived, but a local detective doubted his story of jumping from a window to summon help. Then a caller told authorities about other suspicious fires in Veysey's past.

*

CARY, Ill. -- The scent of charred wood hung in the frosty air as Det. Ron Delelio stepped around pools of standing water and holes where flames had eaten away the floorboards.

Burned furniture, clothing and toys were everywhere -- a family's worldly possessions fried into an amorphous mess. Somewhere a generator was humming. A contractor was surveying the fire damage.

Near the foot of the basement stairs in what had been John Veysey's home, Delelio spotted something that stopped him cold. A smoke detector hung open without a battery. Then nearby, mixed in a pile of clothing, he saw a 9-volt battery.

Delelio wasn't taking written notes. But an experienced cop always makes mental notes, and the empty smoke detector got a page all to itself.

It came on top of tips from callers to the police station only hours after the fire the previous day.

Most were anonymous. People who knew John T. Veysey III didn't like him and they told Delelio some intriguing things:

* His first wife died mysteriously.

* He didn't seem to work, yet he lived comfortably.

* He collected big insurance payouts.

In 15 years as a cop, Delelio had developed a theory about police work: 98% is common sense. And common sense told him that Veysey, this seemingly respectable family man, was a fraud and a liar.

Maybe something even worse.

Proving it would be hard work. Delelio was used to that.

He'd grown up outside Chicago, one of 13 children in a family that struggled to get by. Their three-bedroom home in rural Wonder Lake was so crowded that some kids slept on the living room floor.

At 11, Delelio was washing dishes in a pizza parlor. He dropped out of high school but later got a college degree. His dream was to be a police officer, like his grandfather.

If you wanted something, he'd learned, there was one way to get it: hard work. What he wanted now was to find out what really happened in that fire.

*

When Deserie Veysey woke up in the hospital four days after the High Road inferno, she had no memory of it, no sense of how close she had come to dying.

As she looked around, she saw her mother, Irene Beetle; her husband, John; her 8-month-old daughter, Sabrina; her sister, Denise; her father-in-law, Tom Veysey.

And her stepson, Little John. He was there too. He was OK.

Both had suffered smoke inhalation and were treated in hyperbaric chambers, which increase oxygen levels and help the body eliminate smoke-borne toxins.

Deserie was accustomed to hospitals, having undergone repeated surgeries through childhood to correct a birth defect that left her nose misshapen.

She was hoarse now from tubes inserted in her throat, and she hurt from severe burns on her leg, hand and face. Her whole body felt taut and stretched. Bits of melted carpet still clung to her fingertips.

But she was breathing. She was alive.

How had she gotten here? What had happened?

John was the hero, her father-in-law kept saying. It was John, he said, who saved them all.

John told her that she had discovered the fire when she got up in the middle of the night, threw him a fire extinguisher -- which turned out not to work -- and struggled in vain to crank open a window.

Then, he said, he took a running jump and plunged through the double-glass window, landing in the snow nine feet below. He called it a "Ninja roll."

He caught Sabrina when Deserie lowered her through the broken window, he said, but then couldn't get back inside after running for help.

Deserie didn't remember any of this. Not a single detail.

She remembered coming home about 9:30 p.m., changing into pajamas, spooning herself a bowl of Moose Tracks ice cream and getting ensconced on the couch near the Christmas tree to watch TV.

John had asked if she wanted a glass of water -- not the type of thing he normally did. The last thing she remembered was drinking it.

Deserie spent five days in the hospital before being released.

They all moved in with John's parents. But instead of sharing a room with her husband, Deserie found herself upstairs with her stepson. Veysey explained that he didn't want to risk hurting her if he thrashed around in bed.

Since the blaze, John had changed. He was cool and distant. He never asked how she felt, never kissed her. He never said he was happy she'd survived. One morning, Deserie went downstairs, lay next to John on the sofa bed and wrapped her arms around him. He remained rigid.

It was just one more sign that something was terribly wrong. She would never heal there, she thought. She wanted to be coddled, as her mother had done when she was sick as a little girl.

Within a few days, Deserie moved out -- it was the beginning of the end of their marriage.

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