RAWLINS ST. FIRE: BURNING QUESTIONS

The mysterious chain of events at 4514 Rawlins St. began with a routine call to the Dallas Fire Department in the early hours of May 18, when a neighbor reported a fire in a two-story house located on the fringes of Highland Park. Firemen called it a minor blaze, but because it began in the attic, it burned for almost 50 minutes before they could extinguish it. No arson was suspected, but firemen sifting through the ashes discovered the makings of an illicit meth-amphetamine lab used to produce speed.

By 3 a.m., narcotics officers were picking through the wet debris, collecting such items as laboratory glassware, ether and chemicals they believed to be drugs in various stages of processing. The next day, officers discovered the house was owned by Dallas bail bondsman H. Rhett Stein, through his real estate entity Corinth and Har-wood Corp. Stein was convicted in April 1984 on felony aggravated assault charges. (He received a three-year probated sentence and $2,500 fine for assaulting a Dallas attorney in an argument over a civil lawsuit.) Officers observed Stein and Mickey Bickers, recently paroled on felony cocaine charges, surveying the damages to the house on Rawlins.

Stein, 30, is Park Cities born and bred, a high-profile wheeler-dealer with friends in both high and low places, ranging from police officers and judges to known police characters and ex-cons. Stein, who was arrested in late July on charges of illegally possessing a firearm, also has been the target of several local and federal arson-for-hire investigations. A colorful character, he once accused a fire chief of having one of his houses burned to frame him and has told associates that he bought a specially trained drug-sniffing dog because he fears police are trying to plant drugs on him. Stein was questioned by police last year in connection with the murder of a police informant he bonded out of jail. Two of Stein’s employees told police they picked up the man at the Dallas County Jail, but were met in the parking lot by two gun-wielding men who claimed to be Texas Rangers. The men said they were transferring the informant to the Tarrant County Jail. The man was found dead the next day.

Officers discovered that Stein bought the house on Rawlins last January for just under $300,000 from Dallas restaurateur Gene Street, whose Prufrock Restaurant Corp. owns some 49 restaurants throughout the Southwest. At the time of the fire, Street still held a wrap-around mortgage note on the property. Street says he bought the house in 1980, but put it on the market in January 1983 at the urging of his wife. He says he had difficulty selling it-largely because the “little old lady” next door had several dozen cats. “I promise you, I don’t have anything to do with any speed labs,” Street says. “People are talking about this thing an awful lot, and I keep hearing my name mentioned. All I did was sell a house to a guy”

The chain of events became more complex that same day when the man police said was living in the Rawlins house, 37-year-old Ronald Wayne Ward (a.k.a. “the fat man”), turned up dead at a Balch Springs apartment. Investigators now believe Ward, who worked for Stein’s bail bond company, and another man were in the process of “cooking” a batch of speed and venting ether through an opening in the attic when an explosion occurred.

The Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office at first ruled that Ward’s death was due to “acute and chronic alcoholism,” but after running toxicology tests amended the preliminary cause of death to include “morphine intoxication.” According to investigators, Ward injected himself with what later proved to be a lethal dose of heroin on the evening of the explosion. Several police agencies are looking for a 31-year-old reputed narcotics dealer who drove Ward to the Balch Springs apartment; they want to question him about where Ward obtained the lethal heroin dose. “I visited his last known address recently,” says one investigator. “The apartment manager told me seven or eight different people had been looking for the guy, and they weren’t all police officers.”

Ward, who had been in and out of jails much of his life, was known to police as both a narcotics dealer and second-rate “torch,” or arsonist. His criminal record dates back to 1971, when he served a five-year sentence in the Texas Department of Corrections on a drug possession charge.

In addition to the narcotics conviction, Ward has been charged with such other crimes as aggravated assault of a police officer, burglary and theft under $10,000. He had been hauled in front of a federal grand jury recently in connection with a fire at another of Stein’s properties last year. “Let’s put it this way,” one arson investigator says. “Anytime there was an arson and Ronnie was in the area, we talked to him.” Stein says he knew of Ward’s history of heroin addiction, but claims Ward had cleaned up his act as an employee of his bail bond company.

To add to the mystery, on the morning of the fire, Alma Parker, the elderly lady next door known as the “cat lady” and neighborhood detective, was taken to the hospital by ambulance. She died a week later. The neighbors believe Ms. Parker died of cancer, but police aren’t ruling out the possibility that she was murdered for something she may have seen. Hence, they have requested an autopsy on her body. Since the autopsies on Ward and Ms. Parker could take up to eight weeks to complete, police have not yet officially opened a homicide investigation.

“So far we have nothing concrete to go on,” says Dallas Police narcotics Sgt. Jim Penn. “We ran lab tests on the chemicals we picked up at the house and none of them turned out to actually be controlled substances. So we can’t file a drug case. We have no evidence. As far as the two deaths, we have nothing concrete to go on and we’re waiting for the autopsy results. But the circumstances sure make you wonder.”

“That was an exciting weekend,” says Harry Parker, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, who lives on the other side of the mysterious house. “My wife woke me up at about 1:30 a.m. to the sight of a burning roof about 30 feet from our window. Then, later that day, we had a few bus loads of 500 Inc. people over to tour our house.

“Until the fire we had noreason to suspect there was foulplay within the house,” saysParker, who is not related toAlma Parker. “The whole thingwas bizarre. This is a verystaunch neighborhood andwe’ve been through a lot ofthings. But we always stick together.” -Eric Miller

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