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Woman convicted in fire deaths of 2 girls

May get life term, chance of parole

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / February 17, 2010

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Nicole Chuminski was convicted of arson and murder yesterday for setting the roaring blaze that killed two sisters found huddled together in their South Boston home almost two years ago.

The room in Suffolk Superior Court went eerily quiet as the jury of seven men and five women announced that Chuminski was guilty of second-degree murder for causing the deaths of 14-year-old Acia Johnson and her younger sister, 3-year-old Sophia, who were found holding each other in a closet after the fire.

Prosecutors had argued that Chuminski, of South Boston, started the deadly fire by throwing a fire bomb at the home after an argument the night before with Anna Reisopolous, her lover and the girls’ mother.

Chuminski, 27, stood quietly as the verdicts were read. She wiped tears from her eyes, but barely looked back at her two sisters, who also started to weep.

Johnson’s paternal family members, most of whom watched the entire trial, sat in the front row of the courtroom and showed little emotion.

“These two young girls should not have died,’’ Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said outside the courtroom. Though nothing could take back the pain of their deaths, he said, “I hope this gives their family some sense of justice and relief.’’

The findings of neglect in the girls’ life led to sweeping changes at the state Department of Children and Families, which acknowledged it failed to rescue the two girls from their hardships.

Chuminski, who was also convicted of two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon for injuring the girls’ mother and brother in the fire, is expected to be sentenced tomorrow to at least life in prison with the eligibility for parole in 15 years.

It was not clear yesterday if Reisopoulos would attend the sentencing hearing. She is being held in a county jail on unrelated charges.

Chuminski’s lawyer, William M. White Jr. of Boston, said yesterday that he was disappointed with the jury’s decision and that he thought prosecutors lacked the evidence to show that Chuminski started the fire.

He said that his client cared for the two young girls.

“The relationship she had with them was a loving relationship,’’ White said.

Chuminski’s sister, Shirley Molgard, said the family still does not believe Chuminski started the fire.

“We’re just very disappointed, very disappointed,’’ she said, “and we love her very much.’’

The verdict yesterday, after one day of deliberations, completed a dramatic, two-week trial that included testimony by firefighters who described the intensity of the blaze and how they knew immediately that it had been set.

Police investigators spoke of the conflicting accounts that Chuminski gave to investigators in the hours after the fire.

Neighbors described their attempts to help Reisopolous, as she fled the blaze. The mother also took the stand, fighting tears to describe her failed attempts to rescue her daughters.

Assistant district attorneys David Fredette and Julie Higgins argued during the trial that Chuminski started the fire at about 3 the morning of April 6, 2008, in a fit of rage after fighting with Reisopolous at a wedding reception in Weymouth.

Reisopolous, now 35, stole the wallet of Chuminski’s cousin and was thrown out of the reception. At the time, Chuminski tried to defend Reisopolous from her relatives.

But prosecutors argued that Chuminski returned to the Reisopolous home on West Sixth Street early the next morning still in a rage and shouted at her to open the door, calling her a whore and accusing her of sleeping with someone else. Reisopolous and her son, Raymond Jr., Acia’s twin, said that they heard Chuminski yelling from the street.

Soon after, the fire started. Reisopolous said she saw a “burst of orange flames.’’

Still in a drunken state from the wedding reception, she called to the third floor to have Acia bring down Sophia. She ran downstairs to wake up Raymond.

But Acia could not make it down through the thick, black smoke. She and Sophia were found dead in the closet of their bedroom.

Reisopolous and Raymond escaped with smoke inhalation.

A Globe report months later highlighted not only the tragedy of the girls’ deaths, but also the neglect that affected them. Their mother was a drug addict, their father was in and out of jail, and the children were surrounded by their mother’s violent relationship and were left to care for themselves.

In court, their paternal grandmother, Irene Gregory, who had legal custody of the children, said that Acia “was like a mother.’’

Conley said: “This arson and the death of these two children, and the manner and how they died and how they were found by the firefighters that day I think struck a chord with all of us. This was a horrific crime, and Nicole Chuminski needed to be held accountable, and I think that’s what happened today.’’

Sarah Bailey, a close friend of Reisopolous and the girls who would often have Acia baby-sit her own children, said last night that the verdict will help bring some sense of closure for a neighborhood that could never forget.

Children in the area still remember the girls’ names, said Bailey. She said she cries every times she sees their picture.

“I just wish I could see them again,’’ said Bailey.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.