Authorities: Minneapolis mom likely out when house fire killed kids

A flower memorial in north Minneapolis
Investigators believe mother Taneisha Stewart was away long enough from this home on Penn Avenue to catch fire Oct. 4 without an adult intervening. Three young children died in the north Minneapolis fire.
Leila Navidi | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 3:12 p.m. | Posted: 1:25 p.m.

Investigators probing the deaths of three young children in a north Minneapolis fire last week don't believe the children's mother was home at the time and suspect that she was drinking.

Latorious Thomas, 6, and his sisters Latoria, 5, and Latorianna, 23 months, died in the house fire on Penn Avenue on Oct. 4. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner determined their cause of death as smoke inhalation and "thermal injuries."

The children's parents listened during the service
Taneisha Stewart, left, and husband Antonio Thomas
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Their mother, Taneisha Stewart, 26, had told police she was sleeping on the first floor when she smelled smoke, stepped outside and began screaming for help, according to a search warrant filed to gain access to her cell phone records.

But investigators said Stewart "showed no signs of having been inside the burning dwelling. She had no soot on her person, nor a noticeable smell of smoke" and did not have injuries that would indicate she jumped into the burning house.

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The search warrant went on to say that Stewart didn't require any medical assistance and "smelled of an intoxicating beverage."

Stewart and her children moved into the home the day of the fire and were sleeping on the floor. She told investigators the home lacked a working furnace and that she used the oven to warm it up on that cold evening.

The search warrant, however, said the home had working smoke detectors.

Investigators believe Stewart was away long enough for the home to catch fire without an adult intervening. Sgt. Sean McKenna with the Minneapolis Arson Squad is seeking access to all phone calls and text messages sent and received to her phone the day the fire broke until the next day.

McKenna concluded, "The lack of a competent adult inside the home with three sleeping juveniles under the age of seven is a factor in the deaths of the children."

Stewart could not be reached for comment.

The Rev. Harding Smith is the family's spokesperson. He declined to comment specifically on the search warrant and said he's focused on planning the children's funeral.

"This is very, very horrible news. This is a nightmare for our community hearing this," Smith said. "Right now, we just got to be strong and try to get these kids buried."

Friends and family members have been raising money for the children's funeral expenses, but Smith said Monday the amount is just a fraction of what's needed. So far the Stewart Family Memorial Fund at Wells Fargo Bank has garnered $370.

A funeral for the children is set for Saturday, Oct. 17 at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale.

Editor's note (Oct. 15, 2015): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the day of the funeral.