The mother of two unsupervised toddlers killed in a west Charlotte house fire early Sunday was arrested and charged with murder and felony child abuse.
After a day of searching, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrested Orgal Paulette Opata, 26, after she left her four children alone at the home on Rowan Street, in the Thomasboro community. One-year-old Gabriel Hawthorne and his 2-year-old brother, Josiah Hawthorne, died in the fire that destroyed the home.
She was charged with two counts of murder, three counts of reckless/gross felony child abuse, exposing a child to fire and one count of burning resulting in serious injury to a firefighter.
Her two older children, a 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, survived the fire after they were helped by a neighbor.
Charlotte Fire Department Capt. Mark Basnight said Sunday night that investigators ruled the fire accidental. "It started in a bedroom," Basnight said. "It was involving a kerosene heater."
Firefighters from station 13, two blocks away, said they responded quickly and took only 19 minutes to put out the blaze. When they arrived, neighbors told them about the children inside. They said they aggressively entered the home, but couldn't save the two toddlers.
One firefighter was burned, treated at a local hospital and released.
A neighbor, Elizabeth Lane, awoke early Sunday and said she heard screams: "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!"
She looked out her apartment window and saw the house across Rowan Street in flames. Lane called 911, then quickly dressed and ran to the house.
At the front door, she found the two older children. The 7-year-old girl tugged at Lane, screaming her younger brothers, Josiah and Gabriel, were still in the back.
"I walked into the house and the flames shot up like someone had poured gasoline on them," Lane said. "I got the two older children out. By then, the firefighters were there and I took the children to my apartment."
In 2007, Opata was convicted in Greensboro of possessing cocaine, and sentenced to at least six months in jail. Six years earlier, she was convicted of embezzlement, also in Greensboro, and sentenced to six to eight months.
Last October, Opata was charged in Charlotte with contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile and was awaiting trial before Sunday's arrest.
William Smith, who lives next door, described Opata as "a good mother."
"If she had to go to work, I'd see her getting on the bus with the children to take them to day care," Smith said. "If they were outside, she was always on the porch keeping a watch on them. Or if she had to be away, a friend would come pick them up or stay with the kids until she got home."
Smith, who has five children, said he was awakened by his 13-year-old son. He looked out his bedroom window and saw flames.
"By the time I saw it, the fire department was already there," he said. "I just made sure my kids and house were OK."
Juanita Edwards, a next door neighbor, said her husband, David, woke her around 6 a.m. and reported the house was on fire. By the time she looked out the window, firefighters were battling the blaze.