© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Fire Kills Woman Living In Boardinghouse Run By Imprisoned East St. Louis Township Supervisor

Karen Lee died in an Oct. 29 fire at former East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton's home, pictured here.
Beth Hundsdorfer | St. Louis Public Radio
Karen Lee died in an Oct. 29 fire at former East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton's home, pictured here.

Her lungs were filled with carbon monoxide and her body covered with burns when firefighters pulled Karen Lee’s body from former East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton’s burning home.

The deadly fire is just the latest problem for Hamilton.

From 2012 to July 2016, Hamilton spent more than $280,000 using a taxpayer supported credit card issued to the township. He is currently serving a five-year prison sentence in federal prison for wire fraud. Federal prosecutors recently seized Hamilton’s retirement to pay $40,000 in restitution.

Lee died on Oct. 29, just a few hours after her rescue, in a hospital emergency room.

The Illinois State Fire Marshal is now investigating the fire as a possible arson. While the cause of the fire isn’t clear, what is known is the smoke detectors weren’t working.

The disabled residents who lived at the boarding house didn’t get out immediately because no alarm woke them, the fire report noted. Firefighters had to pull Lee from the upstairs bedroom.

East St. Louis Fire Chief Jason Blackmon confirmed that finding.

Luddie Lee, the victim's mother, said she thought her daughter was being well cared for because she was fed, went to the doctor, and her clothes were clean. After the fire, she learned there were no working smoke detectors in the house.

"Shouldn't there be? Shouldn't there be in every house? But especially in that house," Lee said.

Before he went to prison, Hamilton said he ran a sheltered care facility, housing disabled adults at the house at 1232 Cleveland Ave. He accepted the residents’ Social Security checks in exchange for room and board. Usually, that designation of “sheltered care facility” is an official category and requires a state inspection, but state records showed Hamilton never received that inspection.

East St. Louis voter records showed there are 17 people currently registered to vote at the 2,000-square-foot home. It’s unclear where those people have gone.

The morning of the fire, Lee and five men were in the home. One of the men was Hamilton’s adult son, who listed an address at his parent’s house in Caseyville when he renewed his driver’s license in September.

Karen Lee died in a fire at this unlicensed boarding house in East St. Louis.
Credit Beth Hundsdorfer | St. Louis Public Radio
Karen Lee died in a fire at this unlicensed boarding house in East St. Louis.

One of the people who was present on Oct. 29 when the fire broke out was Ernest Walker, who lived at the boarding house and manages its operation.

Hamilton Contractors, Hamilton’s construction company, and Padron Construction, owned by Walker, also listed the house as their corporate offices.

In 2011, Hamilton received a matching grant of $25,000 from East St. Louis, as part of a program to increase property values of the city’s housing stock. The application stated Hamilton would use the $50,000 to rehab the interior of the house by installing new drywall, windows, front door, a central air-conditioning system and replacing kitchen appliances and plumbing.

Electrical work was not listed on the upgrades.

A city inspector signed off on the completion of the property.

A photograph of that property taken by the city inspector shows missing siding, a sloping roof and boarded windows.

When he got the grant to fix up the house, Hamilton was serving as the supervisor for the township, an entity whose mission it is to provide help to the poor. In East St. Louis, 45 percent of the people live below the poverty line. Five years after taking office, Hamilton was convicted of using a township American Express card for tens of thousands of dollars of personal expenses, including trips to Las Vegas, gas and construction materials.

Hamilton is currently serving his five-year prison sentence at a medium-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois.

Credit Provided
A funeral program for Karen Lee, who died in a fire on Oct. 29.

It isn’t clear when Lee came to live at the Cleveland Avenue house.

Court records showed that she was involuntarily committed to a state hospital in 2000 after she began to curse and threaten emergency room staff. The doctor noted Lee arrived there after threatening other residents at an unnamed boarding house, and that “she threw a cigarette” at another.

A guardian was appointed for Lee, but that ended in 2010.

She was 59.

The Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal could not confirm when the investigation would be complete, but spokesman Jason Rubin pointed out in Illinois there is no statute of limitations on arson.

Follow Beth on Twitter: @bhundsdorfer

Beth was an investigative reporter with St. Louis Public Radio until July 2019.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.