10/09/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Coming as it did on the heels of a tragedy, it wasn't exactly a happy ending. But for 20-year-old Julie Barnes, the news that arrived on Sept. 19 was surely a relief: Worcester, Mass., Superior Court Judge Timothy Hillman had dismissed all charges against Barnes and her ex-boyfriend, Thomas Levesque, 37, who stood accused of manslaughter for causing the December 1999 warehouse blaze that left six Worcester firefighters dead. The homeless couple had been living in the building when they accidentally started the fire by knocking over a candle, but Hillman ruled that they had not been legally obligated to report it and could not have foreseen the fatal outcome. "To render that kind of decision in a community that had been so emotionally torn," says Tim King, 47, city manager of Ellsworth, Maine, with whose family Barnes has been living since mid-July (PEOPLE, 7/31/00), "was extraordinarily courageous."
Pregnant when she was arrested four days after the fire, Barnes had faced up to 120 years behind bars. She was awaiting trial in a Framingham, Mass., prison when King and wife Debb, 46, spotted her photograph in a newspaper and discovered that she was the biological sister of their adopted daughter Jennifer, 17. Stunned, they raised her $25,000 bail and brought her home to Ellsworth. Julie—a high school dropout who took special-education classes—has reportedly bonded remarkably well with Jennifer, who was a sickly baby when a state social agency took her from the girls' mother, deemed unable to care for her. "I expected more difficulties," says Debb, a travel agent, "but Julie's a wonderful kid." The Kings have also filed to become the foster parents of Joshua, the baby boy Julie delivered in prison in June.
Worcester's district attorney has until Oct. 19 to appeal Judge Hillman's ruling. Families of the fire's victims haven't commented. But District Chief Michael McNamee, 50, who commanded those who died fighting the blaze, says the decision may aid the healing process. "This is another step along the way," he says. "It's good to be moving on."