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Arson brings mourning family more sorrow

Still recovering from the loss of their mother, a family learns an arsonist has burned her home and doll collection.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Nancy Lundy, left, and his sister Pam Davis look at what is left of a $3,000 doll collection that belonged to their mother, Delores Eccher.
CRYSTAL RIVER -- The walls -- those that remain -- are charred, and the roof has collapsed.

The inside isn't any better. The house where 68-year-old Delores Eccher once lived is littered with debris.

Her jewelry box is a hunk of congealed glass and metal. Her famous doll collection is little more than melted plastic, the dolls' once-blonde curls and lacy dresses now covered in soot.

Eccher lived at 6849 Buckberry Court the last three years of her life. She died of cancer Dec. 9, leaving a tan and brown ranch house still filled with mementos: her wedding bands, photo albums and, of course, the dolls.

"It was so beautiful inside," said Pamela Davis, 49, Eccher's daughter. "It looked just like a dollhouse."

But fewer than six weeks after losing their mother, Davis and her sister, Nancy Lundy, lost most of those keepsakes, too, when someone set fire to the residence in the early morning hours of Jan. 25.

"It was like she was gone all over again," Davis said. "The hole in my stomach was just starting to feel better, then it broke open again."

An Inverness youth, Matthew T. Vangordern, 17, pleaded no contest last week to charges of arson, grand theft and burglary. He will serve time in a juvenile detention facility.

A second suspect, 19-year-old Louis Page, has been charged with grand theft. He is to be arraigned Feb. 28.

Davis and Lundy said Vangordern isn't truly paying for all the pain and suffering they have endured.

"You hear about victims' rights on television and how the justice system doesn't really work, but you don't really realize it until you go through it yourself," Davis said.

Eccher moved to Crystal River in 1999 after living in Treasure Island for nearly 30 years. She worked at the Howard Johnson's hotel on the island, moving up from waitress to assistant manager.

But when the hotel closed, it was time for her to move closer to her children.

Lundy and Davis, as well as their brother, Gary Eccher, have lived in Citrus County for more than 15 years.

"She was a little sad at first," Lundy said. "She missed her friends. But she loved being with her grandchildren."

Eccher was dubbed the "eagle-eye of Buckberry Court" for keeping a strict watch on the neighborhood goings-on. She was also known for her doll collection, which had become so large, the dolls actually had their own room.

Davis and Lundy estimate the worth of the collection at about $3,000.

Eccher had Marie Osmond dolls and baby dolls, bride dolls and clown dolls. Every day she would dust them and make sure their dresses were properly fluffed.

"They were like her babies," Lundy said.

While Eccher had been in poor health for a while, her death was nevertheless a tremendous blow. Davis said she just couldn't bring herself to enter a place still filled with her mother's presence. So for weeks, the house remained virtually untouched.

The sisters had planned to move all their mother's property on Jan. 26. But they were one day too late.

At 4 a.m. Jan. 25, a neighbor knocked on Lundy's door and said her mother's house was on fire. Lundy, who lives nearby, rushed to the residence.

"The fire was raging, absolutely raging," she said. "The entire front was engulfed by flames."

The fire department and Citrus County Sheriff's Office already were fighting the blaze. Soon, the state fire marshal's office arrived.

Lundy was shocked by what the fire investigators told her: The house was probably burned by an arsonist.

Lt. Gloria Perrotti of the State Fire Marshal's office said the fire started in three different locations within the house. Samples have been sent to a state lab to determine what was used to start the blaze.

Within hours of the fire, sheriff's deputies arrested Vangordern and Page. According to an arrest report, Vangordern admitted breaking into the home and stealing a vacuum cleaner, telephone, stereo and three television sets.

Page is accused of helping Vangordern hide the stolen items underneath his house, which is across the street from Eccher's former residence.

When questioned by deputies about the fire, Vangordern said he may have accidentally set it by dropping a lit cigarette on the ground.

Perrotti said it's highly unlike a cigarette could have sparked such a large fire, but even if it had, Vangordern still could have faced arson charges. Under Florida law, a person who sets a fire while committing a felony can still be charged with arson, Perrotti said.

Lundy and Davis said they're actually grateful some items were stolen from the house, especially the telephone, which still has a recording of their mother's voice on the built-in answering machine.

"We used to call it just to hear her voice," Lundy said.

"It's all we have left now," Davis added.

-- Crime reporter Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com.

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