"We have a tentative ruling," said coroner Halbert E. Fillinger Jr., explaining that toxicology tests revealed that 56-year-old Joan Downey and her 86-year-old mother, Phyllis Pepitone, died from inhalation of fumes and carbon monoxide poisoning. "I think this is all we're going to find toxicologically," Fillinger said.
Preliminarily, Fillinger added, the manner of death appears to be a murder/suicide.
"It's all tentative right now," Fillinger cautioned. "The investigation thus far points to this as the potential mechanism.
"The suicide was brought about by the fire. As a result of that fire, the other person succumbs, which would be a homicide," Fillinger speculated without specifically suggesting who set the fire.
Fillinger, adding he still doesn't know the fire's point of origin or what caused it, explained he is holding off on issuing a final ruling on the manner of death until he receives the results of the state police fire marshal's investigation into the blaze that occurred in the 300 block of Speaker Place. Unless the state police investigation shows otherwise, Fillinger said he will likely rule the deaths a murder/suicide.
"We have not been notified officially or unofficially of any results from the coroner's office and our investigation continues to tie up loose ends that remain in the case," state police Trooper Christopher Paris responded Monday, declining to comment further.
Paris, public information officer for state police at Skippack, previously said police had not ruled out murder/suicide, but cautioned that other causes were also being investigated, including that the fire could have been accidental. The only thing police previously confirmed was that the fire was not electrical or caused by a ruptured natural gas main.
Authorities said samples of the residence, carpet samples and other samples of the remnants of the structure, were seized and sent to a lab to check for existence of accelerants. In December, a police source claimed Downey planned the fire and planned to die in it. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed Downey wrote a letter to her employer, a Blue Bell area financial company, and confessed to embezzling money and that she was unable to pay the money back.
However, Paris has said Downey was not the subject of any police criminal investigation at the time of the fire. The employer, who police did not identify, decided to conduct "a full work-up" of the company's books after the fire to determine what the situation was financially, Paris previously said.
On Monday, Paris said authorities have not yet received that report from Downey's employer.
Paris previously revealed that correspondence was discovered at the homeowner's place of employment that leads investigators to believe that there is not a random arsonist who caused the fire.
The details of the note have been kept confidential and police have refused to characterize it as a suicide note.
Paris has not divulged how police came to possess the correspondence. Furthermore, Paris would not identify Downey as the author of the correspondence.
According to police, Downey and Pepitone were the only people who lived in the home. While Downey did have children, the children did not live in the home, Paris said.
Half of the home, which anchored a row of 12 units, was reduced to ash in the blaze. The portion of the house that remained standing has since been knocked down, reduced to a pile of charred rubble.
Neighbors said the flames shot 20 feet out of the windows and roof of the home after the fire started at 2 p.m. Within minutes, the home was destroyed, but firefighters managed to keep the flames from spreading to the attached units.
Paris said the origin of the fire was in the front living room area of the house. He said fire marshals believe common combustible materials in the house accelerated the fire.