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“Karma comin 4 u" defendant warned before fatal Waterloo fire

WATERLOO — A Waterloo woman accused of setting a 2018 fire that killed two people had warned her ex-boyfriend that fate was headed his way shortly before the blaze.

“Karma comin 4 u. Hope u redy n i hope it hurts oms aint the traymore I fell in luv wit,” Denise Susanna O’Brien texted Willie Traymone Phillips less than two hours before the fire at 536 Dawson St. The blaze killed Jaykwon Sallis, 9, and his mother, 32-year-old Ashley Smith on the morning of April 22, 2019.

Authorities allege O’Brien, 45, set the fire because she was upset that Phillips was seeing Teryn Netz, another woman who lived at the house, and had spent the night there. O’Brien had also been involved in a confrontation with Phillips and Netz at the house about five hours before the fire.

Defense attorneys said O’Brien didn’t start the fire, and testimony in her trial entered a second week on Monday.

As evidence continued, jurors read text messages she allegedly sent to Phillips before and after the blaze.


Denise O’Brien during a break in trial on Wednesday.

Leading up to the 6:30 a.m. fire, O’Brien was sending multiple texts to Phillips’ phone every hour.

“Please come home my king,” she told him at one point, adding that she will be dead by morning.

“U got my mind twisted,” she texted a short time later, telling him he didn’t know her loyalty and saying he was throwing away a diamond.

Phillips earlier testified he had blocked her number that night, so he didn’t see her messages.

There was a lull in the text barrage from 3 a.m. to about 5 p.m., and prosecutors allege this happened as O’Brien walked from her West Fourth Street apartment to Dawson Street.


A person identified by police as Denise O’Brien in a surveillance video at Kwik Star on Broadway Street on the morning of April 22, 2021.

“Forsaken,” she texted at 5:13 a.m.

The karma text was sent at 5:21 a.m., followed by “MONSTER.”

Neighbors called 911 at 6:33 a.m. after spotting a tower of flames shooting from the front of the Dawson Street house. Phillips and Smith’s 12-year-old daughter escaped through a window, as did Netz, who suffered burns on her back and arm. Smith and Jaykwon were trapped inside and died of smoke inhalation and burns.

Authorities said they found traces of gasoline in a second, smaller fire at the back steps.

Police said a security camera video shows O’Brien at a Kwik Star convenience store on Broadway Street about a block away as fire trucks raced to the scene. Prosecutors showed footage of a person at the store wearing a dark sweatshirt and sweatpants with a stocking cap pulled down to the eyebrows.

Detective T.J. Frien pointed out to jurors that a hint of a camouflage shirt was peeking out from underneath the sweatshirt. He noted that the person in the video was wearing white shoes.

About 15 minutes later, at 6:45 a.m., a camera outside the MidAmerican Energy facility some seven more blocks away recorded footage of a woman — identified by police as O’Brien — in a camo T-shirt, fitted jeans and white shoes walking past and holding a Kwik Star fountain drink cup.

Investigator Jeff Tyler said the sweatshirt, sweat pants and stocking hat were never found. He also noted that simply walking from Kwik Star to MidAmerican would take less than 15 minutes.


A person identified by police as Denise O’Brien in a surveillance video at the MidAmerican Energy building on Fairview Avenue on the morning of April 22, 2021.

Later that morning, O’Brien texted Phillips “U can calculate all u want. This aint that n that aint this. I aint do no bs. I knew there was kids. N I cant keep a man dint wanna b kept. Dowhatitdo,”

Police interviewed O’Brien that afternoon, and she denied being in the area at the time of the fire. She told officers she had been asleep at her apartment.

“I wouldn’t do anything like that. I don’t have anything to hide,” she told investigators.


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