Juan Ignacio Blanco  


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Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: Gambling debts - To collect insurance money - Arson
Number of victims: 2 ?
Date of murders: March 10, 1997
Date of birth: ???
Victims profile: His wife, Ruthie, and one of his daughters, Sherri
Method of murder: Fire (carbon monoxide poisoning)
Location: Michigan, USA
Status: His first trial in September 1997 ended with a hung jury. In a second trial in January 1998, the jury acquitted James Campbell of the murder and arson charges against him

Michigan v. James Campbell

"The Arson Double Murder Trial"

Was it a fiery murder or a fiery suicide? In a trial Court TV taped in late January 1998, James Campbell was charged with first-degree murder in the fire-related deaths of his wife, Ruthie, and one of his daughters, Sherri. Prosecutors believed that Campbell, who was married to his wife for 39 years, killed his wife in order to collect homeowner's insurance worth $65,000 so that he could handle his debts. Campbell claimed that his wife's death was a suicide, that she went into a rage after an argument and purposely set the house of fire.

Ironically, Ruthie was a dispatcher for the Fire Department and earned a salary of about $57,000. She also had accumulated an annuity totaling almost $300,000. Under a Michigan law allowing her a onetime withdrawal from her annuity fund, Ruthie took out $70,000. She did not spend any of the money on Campbell and used it primarily on herself and to buy their other daughter Diane a car.

Investigators said that Campbell resented his wife's money and her unwillingness to spend her money on him. Reportedly, Campbell had been unemployed for several years at the time of the fire. Ruthie had reported Campbell to the police for credit card fraud because he had obtained a credit card under his and Ruthie's name without her permission.

Prosecutors claimed that Campbell had a gambling problem, accumulating a debt of approximately $114,000 and filing for personal bankruptcy at the time of Ruthie's death. These financial woes along with marital discord allegedly drove Campbell to set fire to his house and kill his wife. (The prosecution's theory is that Campbell did not know his daughter Sherri would be at the house at the time of the fire.)

If convicted of first-degree murder, Campbell faced life in prison without parole. This is Campbell's second trial for the murder of his wife and daughter; his first trial in September 1997 ended with a hung jury.

The Fire

During the early morning hours of March 10, 1997, Ruthie Campbell returned home after a night of gambling with her cousin, Dorothea Walker, in Windsor, Canada. (Windsor is a popular gambling spot that is a short trip away from Detroit across the Great Lakes.) She called Walker to let her know that she had gotten home safely. What happened next is unclear.

According to the prosecution, James Campbell hid in the attic while he waited for Ruthie to come home. When she entered the house, he allegedly took a newly-purchased can of gasoline and doused the house with it, starting at the top of the stairs and working his way down through the house. Campbell allowed a safe exit for himself out the downstairs kitchen after setting the house on fire. At some point before the blaze, Campbell managed to remove the most recent insurance papers from the house. Campbell eventually ended up at his brother's house, whether police later found him and informed him about the fire and the deaths of his wife and daughter. Allegedly, when Campbell went to the police station for questioning, he told an officer that he was responsible for the fatal fire. (The defense disputed this claim by saying that Campbell was under duress and did not mean to claim responsibility for the blaze.)

Campbell's defense claimed that when Ruthie came home, Campbell was sleeping. Ruthie then started cooking and the smell of food woke Campbell up. Campbell contended that he and his wife had an argument about the kitchen sink being "clogged up," and Ruthie went into a rage. She allegedly chased the defendant around the house with pots and pans and doused the house with gasoline. Campbell said that he then left the house to "cool off" and drove to his brother's house for refuge.

The defense said that when Campbell later learned about the death of Ruthie and their daughter Sherri, he was shocked. He claimed that the house was not on fire when he left, and he thought that Sherri would be able to calm her mother down. Campbell said that he did not realize his wife would set the house on fire and kill herself and Sherri. The defendant also claimed that job stress, Ruthie's gambling habits, and a recent lack of sleep caused her to "crack" during their argument. (However, friends and relatives of the alleged victim said that they saw no change in her behavior that would have indicated suicidal tendencies shortly before her death.)

Ruthie and Sherri Campbell were found dead in an upstairs bedroom. They died from intense heat and possibly carbon monoxide poisoning. The front of their bodies were completely charred.

The Controversial Annuity

According to investigators, James Campbell did not know at the time of the blaze that Ruthie had changed the terms of her annuity fund in 1993, removing him as a beneficiary and including only her two daughters, Sherri and Diane Muhammad. At the time of the second trial, no one had received the proceeds from Ruthie's annuity fund and homeowners' insurance. Under normal conditions, the homeowners' insurance would go to Campbell because he and Ruthie jointly owned the house. But, if Campbell is found criminally or civilly responsible for Ruthie's death, Muhammad would receive the proceeds. (Muhammad is reportedly planning to file a wrongful death suit against her father.)

Muhammad was the state's chief witness against Campbell, claiming that he was money-hungry and had plenty of motives to commit the crime. The defense discredited Muhammad's allegations by labelling her as "the money-greedy one" who would receive all the monetary proceeds if Campbell went to jail.

The Verdict

After only three hours of deliberations, the jury acquitted James Campbell of the murder and arson charges against him. Campbell may still face a civil suit from his daughter Diane Muhammed as they squabble over the proceeds from Ruthie Campbell's annuity and homeowner's insurance policy



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