She knows it won’t bring her daughter back. But Diena Thompson said it felt good to help Orange Park, Florida, firefighters burn down the home where a man raped and killed her 7-year-old daughter five years ago.
She told The Florida Times Union the experience was cathartic.
“Burn, baby, burn,” Thompson said as she watched flames consume the former home of Jarred Harrell.
Somer Thompson, 7, died in that house. Police said she was lured there by Jarred Harrell as she was walking past on her way home from school in 1999. It was the last time she was seen alive. Investigators found her body in a Georgia landfill two days later.
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Police said they believed Harrell sexually assaulted the girl and then smothered her before dumping her body in the trash.
Harrell, 29, pleaded guilty to the crime and is serving a life sentence in prison for first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual battery, and lewd and lascivious conduct.
After his arrest, the house, which was owned by Harrell’s mother, sat vacant and eventually went into foreclosure. The bank transferred ownership to Diena Thompson’s Somer Thompson Foundation and the still-grieving mother decided the best thing she could do with the house would be to burn it down.
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She arranged to have the Orange Park Fire Department use the house for a training exercise.
Fire Chief Ty Silcox said he was grateful for the chance to conduct the training but was also hopeful the fire would help the community.
“It's probably been five or more years since we've had a structure in the town that we've been able to do live fire training in,” Silcox told WJXT News. “I think the benefit to this community is the healing process that should take place and we're looking forward to that.”
Silcox said he hoped it would help Diena Thompson too. He arranged to have her help start the fire.
“I get to burn their house down,” she said after lobbing a flare into a back window of the house. “I'm the big bad wolf this time knocking down your door, not the other way around. It's really nice to know that I'm not ever going to have to drive in this neighborhood again and see this piece of trash.”
Onlookers all said they were happy for the house to finally be out of the neighborhood because it was such a painful reminder of what happened there.
Now that it is burned, contractors will clear the rubble and Diena Thompson, who still owns the land, will announce plans for the property. Those plans might include a memorial garden of some sort, but nothing has been finalized, she said.