KATHLEEN -- What began as a 911 call about a house fire across the street has spiraled into what neighbor Kenneth Anderson calls a sad, tragic situation.
Anderson said he never imagined the incident would turn into what it has -- an investigation into the death of 12-year-old India J. Collins, with her 17-year-old sister, Carmen Kaneisha Collins, jailed on murder and arson charges.
Investigators have not said how they suspect India Collins died. An autopsy was completed Thursday at the GBI Medical Examiner’s Office in Atlanta, but Houston County Coroner Danny Galpin said the sheriff’s office did not expect to release the findings until Friday.
Carmen Collins is being held in the Houston County jail without bond. She was arrested about 2 a.m. Thursday in Columbus, where she was found driving a 2011 Acura TL that had been reported missing from the family’s Addington Drive home following the fire, according to a news release from the sheriff’s office.
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Outward signs of fire at the Kathleen home were not obvious Thursday.
The garage door was raised, a ladder that seemed to lead to an attic was visible, and a door that appeared to lead into the home was ajar. A pickup truck, which Anderson said belonged to father John Collins, was parked in the driveway.
The brick house was surrounded by yellow police tape and under surveillance by a Houston County sheriff’s car parked just outside of the driveway.
A small array of flowers and balloons from neighbors and friends had begun to collect by the home’s brick mailbox -- a memorial for India, the little girl who often did cartwheels on the front lawn, just feet away.
“India was always cheerful,” Anderson said. “She was just a joyful little girl, an average 12-year-old.”
The sisters would pass through his yard each afternoon as they walked home from the school bus that dropped students off on the next street.
“They would always speak. ... By looking at them you would have never known they had any issues,” Anderson said, adding the two were often seen playing basketball together in the family’s driveway.
India was a student at Mossy Creek Middle School and Carmen had attended Houston County High School, he said.
Carmen previously was arrested June 29 on charges related to burglary and traffic violations and was released on a $2,000 bond.
Anderson said that was not the first time Carmen had been in trouble.
She went missing for about a month in May, he said. That time, she was also found in Columbus, he said.
Anderson said he had developed a close, neighborly bond with John Collins.
The Collins family moved into the quiet two-street neighborhood two years ago. The close-knit community is home to good, quiet people and nice families, Anderson said.
The area has never had issues with crime and have an annual cookout to welcome new residents to the area.
It’s the type of community where neighbors look after each other’s homes when someone goes out of town, Anderson said.
When Anderson noticed flames inside the Collins’ home about 7 p.m. Tuesday, he told his wife to call 911.
He and a neighbor went over to the side of the home, where the garage door was already up, and opened a door leading into the home.
“The smoke was so thick when you opened the door,” he said. “We called out to see if anyone was in the house. We got no answer.”
The conditions inside the home kept Anderson from entering the house, he said.
The first fire truck pulled up around 7:20 p.m., he said, followed shortly thereafter by the girls’ parents.
Anderson remembers the mother, Angela Collins, screaming, “My babies. My daughters. My daughters are in the house.”
But Carmen was not at the home, leading authorities to seek her for questioning in the investigation.
About 15 or 20 minutes after entering the home, emergency crews carried India’s body, covered with soot, from the home and began to perform CPR, Anderson said.
“I could tell from her body that she didn’t have any life left in her -- it was lifeless when they brought her out of the house,” Anderson said Thursday.
The sight brought Angela Collins to her knees, Anderson recalled.
“It was just a sad situation to see that,” he said.
Lt. Jon Holland said officials have been in contact with the girls’ parents since the incident.
“They’re having an extremely hard time dealing with the situation,” Holland said. “They do have quite a bit of family support in this area, but this is a very traumatic and tragic situation they’re dealing with.”
John and Angela Collins were back out at the home Wednesday, Anderson said.
Understandably, they were still filled with shock and sadness given the situation with their daughters.
“John had a blank look on his face, just in disbelief,” Anderson said. “He kept asking ‘why.’ ... That’s a question you can’t answer.”
Neighbors who had grown accustomed to seeing the sisters outside playing with the family’s dog were also distraught, Anderson said, adding he was sure to hug his own adult daughters and young grandchildren a little tighter when they visited Wednesday.
“It’s just a tragic situation,” Anderson said.
Anyone with information on this investigation is asked to contact the Houston County Sheriff’s Office at 542-2080 or 542-2085.
To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 256-9751.