FERGUSON, Mo. — All signs of a fire that happened at a one-story home along Canfield Drive in Ferguson five years ago are gone.
The green siding on the attached garage matches the rest of the home perfectly. The garage door is new. So is the light fixture above it.
But it was a different story on August 2, 2016, when Ferguson police say Perez Reed – now an accused serial killer – tried to set the attached garage on fire even though four members of his family were inside the home.
Reed’s father, aunt, grandmother and cousin were “huddled together and visibly shaking,” when police arrived, according to a police report obtained by the I-Team.
The report paints a picture of a family who struggled to cope with Reed’s mental illness, recognized he was a danger to himself and others and appeared willing to prosecute him for the arson.
But St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell said something changed between then and 2019 when a judge dismissed the case due to failure to prosecute.
Reed’s grandmother and cousin refused to cooperate with his office “despite numerous attempts by prosecutors and investigators,” to get them to do so, according to a statement from Bell’s spokesman.
Had Reed been convicted, he could have been sentenced to prison for five to 15 years.
The six people he’s now accused of killing and two others he's accused of shooting were attacked in September and October.
Court documents show Reed and his older brother spent most of their lives in the care of a cousin. Reed’s brother was 10 and Reed was 9 years old when they went into her care.
Reed’s parents were characterized as being “unwilling, unable, and unfit to assume the duties of guardianship,” according to the documents.
But Reed’s cousin failed to file an annual report on the care of the boys, and the court did not take any steps to remove the boys from her guardianship. Reed aged out of guardianship in 2012, and, at that point, probate court closed the case with the note, “unable to locate guardian.”
Addresses show Reed lived most of his life in Ferguson.
His mother was 17 years old when he was born. His father was 30, according to the documents.
Fire in Ferguson
Reed was 20 years old when his family told police he set their house on fire.
That day, Reed’s cousin told police he threatened to hit his cousin on his face, head and neck moments before the fire began.
His aunt ordered him to leave, and he stole the keys to his father’s car and took off.
Moments later, family members smelled smoke coming from the garage. His uncle was asleep and became overwhelmed by smoke, but escaped, according to the report.
His father did not want to prosecute Reed for stealing his car, according to the report.
Another family member told police this wasn’t the first time Reed tried to set something on fire.
About a month before, the woman told police Reed tried to set a car parked in the driveway on fire – but the family did not want to prosecute.
As police were at the scene of the fire, Reed called 911 to report the fire.
“The caller appears to be calm and polite when speaking,” according to the report.
Reed told the dispatcher, “someone put something on fire,” and that he did not know what the fire was, but that it looked like a car. He told a dispatcher he was “riding past and seen it,” and told dispatchers it was his aunt’s house.
His aunt called 911, and was described as “excited/frantic,” in the report, telling a dispatcher, “I need an ambulance bad, my house is on fire!”
Another woman called 911 and could be heard yelling to family and trying to evacuate everyone according to the report.
Reed’s cousin also called 911 telling a dispatcher, “my little cousin set my house on fire.”
‘Bipolar vs. schizophrenic’
A detective asked Reed to come to the station, which he did driving his father’s Honda, according to the report.
He told police he went to his uncle’s house after a job interview, got into an argument with his cousin and was told to leave the house. Reed told police he saw the fire while he was driving away.
A detective asked him why he didn’t stop to help, and Reed told him he believed it would be “suspicious” if he stopped, according to the report.
He also told police his cousin was upset when he got to his uncle’s house, and “acts out when upset and looses control,” according to the report.
He also told police he was driving his father’s car to a job interview, that he had lived at the house for “several months,” and was trying to find a job in Chicago.
He blamed his cousin for a previous arson attempt, telling detectives his cousin put a sock in a car and tried to set it on fire.
His family painted a different picture, telling detectives Reed had a “history of mental health issues,” and was “manipulative and dangerous,” according to the report.
His aunt told police the family called Reed “Joe” and he came into the house upset accusing his cousin of stealing money and clothes from him.
“When Perez does not have money he ‘goes into a rampage,’” she told police.
She said Reed attacked her son the week before unprovoked and said after Reed acts out, “he switches and acts as if nothing happened,” according to the report.
She told police Reed “switches” very quickly between personalities.
“She stated she could not tell when he is acting bipolar vs. schizophrenic,” according to the report. “She stated he will ‘straight up smile,’ and make you feel sorry and change very quickly.”
Mental health experts told Reed’s family his mental health problems would likely increase if he used marijuana, according to the report.
His family members told police Reed had not been taking his medication for more than a year at that point, and had an “extensive” history with Barnes Jewish Hospital for mental health issues, according to the report.
“Perez once had a handgun and threatened to kill his father and family due to paranoia,” according to the report. “He starts to think people are out to ‘set him up’ so he ‘needs to get rid of them.’
“She stated he is a danger to family as well as she is concerned he may assault strangers due to his delusions. She stated he would not comply to go to the hospital for help. She recalled multiple times where Perez had almost two personalities and acted violently. She is concerned for the safety of everyone and that, ‘If he come back, I may need to kill him.’ She appeared certain that if he does come back, his intent will be to harm the family.”
Reed’s cousin described Reed as “crazy” and “a threat to himself and others.”
“He recalled Perez tried to sell him clothing he did not want,” according to the report. “Shortly after refusing the sale, Perez punched him in the head multiple times without provocation.”
Case gets dismissed
A police officer put a checkmark next to a box, which read, “Willing to prosecute,” near the four names of the family members who reported the arson that day.
It’s unclear what changed between the day of the fire and the months leading up to the date set for trial.
Law experts say prosecutors have options when it comes to compelling reluctant witnesses to cooperate – including subpoenas, and even jail time should they not show up to court.
But even though prosecutors can push for cooperation, that doesn’t mean they should, according to Washington University law professor Peter Joy.
"When you know that a person is adamant about not wanting to cooperate, I think a prosecutor has to think long and hard about using coercive measures especially if they're not going to produce anything,” Joy said.
Joy cited two out-of-state cases in which he says victims were jailed for not cooperating. In one case, a sexual assault victim spent nearly a month in jail and 10 days in a hospital following her testimony, he said.
“If a person doesn't show up to court, then they could ask the court to basically hold a person in contempt for failing to appear or send out a deputy to pick up the person,” Joy said.
In the arson case, Bell’s spokesman said he could not share all prosecutors did to try to get Reed’s family to cooperate because, “releasing details about the now-dismissed case could impugn someone who is not charged with a crime.”
Joy said witnesses have many reasons for being reluctant to prosecute.
Most often, fear.
Erin Richey contributed to this report.