During the early morning hours of August 27, 2003, a fire broke out at the Lorian, Ohio home of 28-year-old mother Nicole Diar. While Diar managed to escape the home unharmed, her 4-year-old son Jacob perished inside.
At the age of 4, Diar herself had suffered horrific burns after her brother accidentally set her pajamas on fire. She underwent a total of 61 operations in just 14 years in an attempt to repair permanent scarring over much of her body.
While it’s hard to imagine that a mother—let alone a burn victim—would intentionally start a deadly fire at her home, authorities charged Diar with the aggravated-murder of her son in 2004.
At trial, prosecutors alleged Diar killed her son before the fire started, and she attempted to cover up his death by using gasoline to send her house up in flames.
Discovery of the body
Jacob’s severely burned body was found on a bed in a first-floor bedroom. A Lorian firefighter who entered the home a few hours after the fire was extinguished testified at Diar’s trial that he smelled gasoline immediately upon entering the home. He also said he noticed obvious burn patterns that led into the bedroom where the child’s body was discovered.
Examination of the home
Lee Bethune, a firefighter with the Ohio Fire Marshal’s Office, examined the home after the fire. Bethune concluded that the fire was started “by the direct act of a human hand and flame device with an accelerant,” according to court documents.
Bethune testified that the bedroom where Jacob’s body was found was “targeted with a trail [of gasoline] being poured from the living room to the dining room and into the bedroom,” documents state. However, Bethune said he was unable to find a gasoline container, or the remains of one, inside the house or the surrounding area.
Genevieve Bures, a fire investigator hired by Diar’s landlord’s insurance company, also examined the home and concluded that the “fire was set,” and it was not accidental, court documents state.
An electrical expert who examined the wiring, appliances, hot water tank and furnace inside the home testified that there was no electrical failure or malfunction that might have caused or contributed to the fire.
While Jacob’s exact cause of death was never determined due to the fact that his body was so badly burned, Dr. Paul Matus, the Lorian County coroner who conducted the autopsy, determined Jacob died as the result of “homicidal violence,” court documents state. Dr. Matus testified Jacob did not die in the fire because his mouth and nasal passages were clear of any soot, foam or debris.
Court documents state Dr. Matus also testified that Jacob’s manner of dress at the time of death was “very peculiar and somewhat alarming.” Despite the warm weather, Jacob was wearing long pants, a t-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt.
An examiner with the State Fire Marshal Forensic Lab concluded that the hood and underwear Jacob was wearing at the time of his death, as well as the mattress pad he was found on top of, tested positive for the presence of gasoline.
Odd behavior after the fire
The day before Jacob’s funeral, a clerk working the drive-through lane at Junction Beverage testified Diar popped her head outside a limousine her brother was driving and said, “I want liquor. Don’t forget the liquor,” court documents state.
On the evening of the funeral, Diar was seen drinking, singing karaoke, and line dancing at Jack & Diane’s Lounge, according to a witness. That same evening, a friend of Diar testified he saw her at a bowling alley drinking and having a good time.
The week after Jacob’s death, Diar refused to participate in a candlelight vigil for her son, or pass out flyers to help find the person responsible for her son’s death, another friend testified.
During a videotaped interview with police on September 3, 2003, Diar explained her version of events leading up to the fire.
The night before the fire, Diar gave her son a bath and they fell asleep in the living room, her on the couch and Jacob on a chaise lounge, she told detectives. Diar stated Jacob woke up and asked for some juice at 4:30 a.m.. He went back to sleep on the chaise lounge with his dog, she said.
Between 8:50 and 9:00 a.m. that morning, Diar told detectives she woke up to “black smoke everywhere,” according to court documents. Diar said she screamed for her son, but he didn’t answer. She went outside and screamed for someone to call 911. Diar told authorities she then went back inside the house to look for Jacob, but the smoke prevented her from going any further.
Diar told investigators she believed the fire was accidental and speculated that her son may have accidentally started it, but she said there was no gasoline in the house.
After investigators confronted Diar with evidence proving Jacob was dead before the fire started, Diar began to cry and said, “I did not harm my son. He was my life,” court documents state.
When police suggested Jacob might have died by accident in the bathroom, Diar insisted that didn’t happen and denied starting the fire to cover up Jacob’s death.
Prosecutors theorized that Diar killed her son because she no longer wanted a child and taking care of Jacob was interfering with her lifestyle.
The state called witnesses to testify that Diar went out on many occasion and left Jacob with different babysitters. One babysitter testified that on a few occasions, Diar called his school, pretended to be his mother, and obtained an excused absence so that he could babysit.
Two other babysitters said that Diar did not leave emergency phone numbers for them to contact her if something happened to Jacob, according to court documents.
A 14-year-old babysitter testified that Diar paid him with cigarettes for watching her son, and she often wouldn’t come home until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.
Another babysitter testified that on three different occasions Diar asked her to give Jacob codeine to help ease his hyperactivity. Diar allegedly said it was “no big deal” when the babysitter told her that medication made Jacob sick, according to court documents.
In an attempt to disprove the state’s theory that Diar was an unfit mother, the defense called Diar’s sister and friends to testify that she was a loving mother.
Her sister stated Diar was thrilled when she learned she was pregnant with Jacob. She also said Diar was “upset” and appeared to be in shock after learning her son was dead, according to court documents.
Diar didn’t hand out flyers seeking the person responsible for her son’s death because she was advised by her attorney not to do anything since she was being treated as a suspect, her sister said.
Guy Morton, the pastor at Jacob’s funeral, testified that Diar’s behavior was typical of someone who had lost a loved one.
Darrell Eberhardt, a family friend, said Diar had a warm and loving relationship with Jacob, and he observed Diar grieving during the funeral service.
Linda Powers, a medical social worker who ran “burn camps” for young burn survivors testified that Diar was a regular participant in camp activities until she was 18 or 19 years old. Powers said Diar loved Jacob and they had a “very caring, very nurturing” mother-son relationship, according to court documents.
In October 2004, after just four hours of deliberation, a jury found Diar guilty of the aggravated murder of her son. One month later, she was sentenced to death.
However, in December 2008, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned Diar’s death sentence while upholding her conviction. The court found jurors weren’t properly instructed because they should have been advised that any single juror could save Diar’s life by refusing to recommend the death penalty, according to documents.
Diar, now 37 years old, is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville.
HLN reached out to Diar’s attorneys who represented her at trial, her appeal and resentencing, but calls were not returned.