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Mother Charged With Murder For Alleged Arson That Killed 6-Year-Old Daughter

Carlene Ratcliffe is accused of setting fire to her home and leaving her daughter Caeli sleeping inside. Valiant efforts by responders, including the girl's grandmother, left three people injured. 

By Jax Miller
A police handout of Carlene Ratcliffe

A woman in South Carolina has been charged with murder for leaving her 6-year-old daughter to die in a house fire she allegedly started.

Carlene Julie Anne Ratcliffe, 32, was booked into the Union County Detention Center on Friday on multiple charges related to the death of her daughter, Caeli Ratcliffe, according to CBS Spartanburg affiliate WSPA-TV.  Officials with the Union Public Safety Department said that at around 5:40 p.m. on Nov. 25, 2020, Carlene set fire to the Union home and left, leaving her sleeping child to perish in the flames.

Responders arrived on the scene and frantically tried to rescue Caeli, including the child’s paternal grandmother, Barbara “Barbie” Newton, who’d just returned home after a grocery shopping trip.

Newton was severely burned when attempting to save the child and was life-flighted to the JMS Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia. According to a GoFundMe page created by Caeli’s aunt, Crystal Johnson, Newton underwent several painstaking operations (including to her legs and face) and was placed on a ventilator.

She suffered burns to more than 50 percent of her body, Fox Greenville affiliate WHNS reported.

Two firefighters also entered the blazing residence in an effort to save the child and were injured as a result. They were treated on the scene, with one responder sustaining burns to his left hand and another who suffered burns to his shoulders and back.

“It was the most unreal thing I’ve ever seen,” neighbor Elizabeth Adams told WSPA-TV. “When the first fireman walked in, he was in there for maybe half a second and had to back out because his uniform was just melting off of him. It was crazy.”

Caeli was found dead inside after firefighters extinguished the blaze. A postmortem examination revealed she died from smoke inhalation, according to warrants obtained by the outlet.

Per the GoFundMe page, which was created in 2020, the fire left the Ratcliffe family - including Newton and both of Caeli’s parents - without a home. A kitten and two dogs also died in the fire.

“I never want to see anything like that again because the whole time we were watching the fire, we knew the little girl was in there,” Adams continued. “Nobody could get to her. All the men in the neighborhood tried. They really tried, but they couldn’t get to her.”

Several agencies were called to investigate the fire, including the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s Arson Unit and Child Fatality Unit, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and the ATF, according to WSPA-TV.

Carlene was charged with setting the fire following an 18-month investigation, though it remains unclear what led authorities to make the arrest.

The possible motive behind the fire also remains unclear.

“She meant a lot to us, and she was the first grandbaby,” Crystal Johnson told WHNS in 2020. “Very doted on, very loved. She was smart, super smart. And she loved unicorns, and she loved cats, and she loved her dog.”

According to the GoFundMe page, Caeli had celebrated her sixth birthday just three days before the fire.

The Union Public Safety Department charged Carlene Ratcliffe with two counts of first-degree arson, murder, and homicide by child abuse. She is being held without bond.

Requests to the Union Public Safety Department and the Union County District Attorney’s Office were not immediately returned to Oxygen.com.