07/31/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was the pout that captured Tim King's attention. Perusing the Sunday paper in his Ellsworth, Maine, den last December, King, 47, was transfixed by a photo of Julie Barnes, a 20-year-old homeless woman who had been charged with involuntary manslaughter after accidentally setting a Worcester, Mass., warehouse fire that killed six firefighters and left 17 children fatherless. She looked just like King's 16-year-old adopted daughter, Jennifer. Then something occurred to King. "What was Jennifer's biological mother's name?" he asked his wife, Debb. "Barnes," she told him. "That's when I looked at the article," recalls Debb, 46. "My heart stopped. It's like, 'Oh, my God.' "
The Kings soon learned that Julie Barnes, arrested with her boyfriend Thomas Levesque, 37, was indeed Jennifer's biological sister, separated from her for a dozen years. Told that Barnes had dropped out of high school, had been homeless for some time and was pregnant, the Kings immediately tried to help, contacting her attorneys and bringing Jennifer to the jail for a visit. On July 14 they took the biggest step of all. With money raised from their own savings and donations from people who had read about their efforts, the Kings posted Julie's $25,000 bail, freeing her to live with them until her trial next year. "We don't know what the outcome will be," says Debb, a travel agent, "but we're hopeful she gets a second chance at life."
They have already given that to Jennifer, who was born Leanne Barnes on Aug. 18, 1983. Shortly after her birth, the state took Jennifer from her biological mother, Evelyn Barnes, because, says Debb King, state social workers deemed her incapable of caring for the sickly child. (Later the state removed her older daughters from her custody and they went to live with their father.) Debb, then a divorced single mother of two, had taken in several foster children on a short-term emergency basis in her Auburn, Mass., home and quickly agreed to take Jennifer. The baby suffered from chronic asthma, stomach problems and seizures and was also late in reaching developmental milestones such as crawling. Still, Debb was happy to keep her. "I loved her," she says, "like one of my own."
For three years, Evelyn and her two older daughters—Julie and Cathy, now 22—regularly dropped by to see Jennifer. Debb recalls Cathy as bright, but Julie, she says, "seemed slow." When Jennifer was 3, Debb adopted her and put a stop to the visits. "We felt we had to pull away," she explains. "It was a better chance of starting a new life."
The next year, Debb met Tim King, a town government official, who was divorced and had moved in across the street. They fell in love and were wed in December 1988. King joined in the task of raising Jennifer, who, despite a learning disability, excelled in her special-education program. "She's a very lovey-dovey kid," says King, who later moved the family to Ellsworth, where he is city manager. "She gives us a hug and kiss every night."
Jennifer's comfortable life was a far cry from the one her sister Julie was leading with her father, Kevin Castonguay, now 42, a taxi dispatcher in Worcester. Attending three different high schools, where she was enrolled in special-education classes, Julie was mercilessly teased. "She doesn't like to talk about it," says her mother, 43, who lives in Rutland, Mass. "They called her retarded." Julie dropped out in 11th grade, alternated between her parents' homes and before long was on the streets.
With no means of support, Julie spent time in and out of Worcester's city-run homeless shelter, where one resident recalls her as "a teenager with the mind of a 10-year-old." Around that time she also hooked up with Levesque, who later worked briefly as a dishwasher. Together they fashioned a temporary home together in the abandoned Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse building. According to Levesque's lawyer, Edward P. Ryan Jr., on the night of Dec. 3 they had lit a candle and were having an argument on the second floor of the warehouse. "He pushed me and the candle fell over onto the clothes," which started to burn, Julie said in a statement to police. Levesque, who conceded he had smoked marijuana, added, "She tried to stomp it out. I tried...too. But it got too big. Everything in the room began to burn." According to Ryan, they did not call the fire department but went to a mall, where Julie listened to music while he looked at books.
Firefighters who responded to the 6:13 p.m. alarm were already having difficulty maneuvering in the mazelike meat-storage facility when the petroleum-based insulation in the walls burst into flames, filling the nearly windowless building with black smoke. When two firefighters were reported missing in the inferno, others went to find them. All told, six died from the smoke and flames. It took more than a week to recover the bodies, and thousands of firefighters converged on Worcester for the memorial service, at which President Clinton delivered a eulogy. After questioning several homeless people who had lived in the warehouse, police arrested Barnes and Levesque, charging them with six counts of involuntary manslaughter, each punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Their attorneys say that for a jury to convict the couple, it would have to find their behavior "wanton or reckless" and determine that the fire was much more than a simple accident.
It was just a few weeks after her arrest that Tim King spotted Julie's photograph. "I just teared right up," he said. "I thought, 'We've got to help this girl.' " But there was little they could do. "I called every senator and representative, wrote letters to social service agencies, churches, everybody," Debb says. "I just came upon a brick wall." Finally, after local papers wrote about their mission, they began raising money for what was originally a $75,000 bail.
On May 21 the Kings traveled to the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Framingham, Mass., where Jennifer and Julie were reunited. "They sat across the table from each other and just giggled—they talked about how their freckles are the same," says Debb King. On June 8, Julie gave birth to a son, Joshua, but the state immediately turned the child over to foster parents. After a judge lowered the bail to $25,000 on the condition Julie stays with the Kings, they arrived on July 14 with the cash and drove Julie home to Maine, where she will share a bedroom with her sister and accompany Debb to work each day. "I think she needs guidance and a family at this point," says Debb, who treated her to a new wardrobe, a haircut and a manicure on her first full day in Ellsworth.
Despite their grief, many who knew those who died have more sympathy for Julie than might be expected. "It sounds to me like this poor young girl needs a break," says Mike McNamee, a district fire chief. "There is no revenge factor here. What good would it serve for her to go to jail?" The Kings understand the magnitude of the loss but don't want to see Julie added to the toll the fire has taken. "Our hearts go out to the families," says Tim. "But our feeling is that this terrible tragedy doesn't need another victim."
Tom Duffy in Worcester, Eve Heyn in Ellsworth and Eric Francis in Framingham