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Woman found guilty of murder in 2018 fatal fire in Waterloo

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WATERLOO — Four hours after a 9-year-old boy and his mother perished in a house fire, Denise Susanna O’Brien texted her boyfriend, “If i ain’t have bad luck id have nun at all.”

On Tuesday, O’Brien’s bad luck continued as a jury found her guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for setting the fatal fire.

Assistant Black Hawk County Attorney Brian Williams said O’Brien, 45, set fire to the back steps and front porch of a Dawson Street home in the early morning hours of April 22, 2018, because she was mad her boyfriend spent the night there with another woman.

“Karma comin 4 u … i hope it hurts,” she texted the boyfriend shortly before passersby spotted the flames on the porch shooting higher than the roof.


Relatives of Jaykwon Sallis and Ashley Smith file out of the courtroom as Denise Susanna O’Brien, seated at right, talks with defense attorney Wendy Samuelson on Tuesday moments after a jury found her guilty of killing the two in a 2018 fire.

The boyfriend and the other woman escaped, but the fire trapped 9-year-old Jaykwon Sallis and his mother, 32-year-old Ashley Smith, in an upstairs bedroom. They died of smoke inhalation and burns.

Testimony in O’Brien’s trial began Nov. 17 with Jaykwon’s then 12-year-old sister describing how she, too, escaped the burning house by jumping from a second-floor window. Firefighters recounted finding the mother and son dead in their upstairs bedroom, and investigators explained how they found traces of gasoline on the back steps.

A Waterloo woman has been found guilty for setting a fire that killed a boy and his mother in 2018. 

Police testified that they identified O’Brien in business surveillance videos a few blocks from the Dawson Street home as fire trucks passed by.

O’Brien told police she was at her West Fourth Street apartment at the time of the fire and denied any involvement. Her defense attorneys argued the person in the videos wasn’t O’Brien.


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.

Jurors deliberated Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning before reaching a verdict shortly before noon.

O’Brien stood quietly as Judge Joel Dalrymple read the verdict aloud. Relatives of Jaykwon and Smith wiped tears as they embraced each other in the hallway after the courtroom emptied.

Each count of first-degree murder is punishable by a mandatory life prison sentence without the possibility of parole, and sentencing will be at a later date.


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