Fire investigators stand in front of a burnt home.
In this Aug. 5, 2020, file photo, investigators stand outside a house where five people were found dead after a fire in suburban Denver. (Thomas Peipert, AP Photo, File)

By Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press

Minutes before a major house fire erupted and killed five people in 2020, a surveillance camera captured three people outside in full face masks and hoodies looking around the backyard of the home where members of three families of Senegalese immigrants lived.

The investigation of the Aug. 5, 2020 fire dragged on for months amid fears that the fire had been a hate crime but authorities ended up alleging another disturbing motive — three teens had set fire to the house out of revenge for a stolen iPhone, which one of them mistakenly traced to the home in a neighborhood near Denver’s airport.

Screaming could be heard and a husband, wife and their 12-year-old daughter escaped by jumping out an upstairs windows, but five people were found dead inside the home in the 2020 fire.

Nearly two years after their arrest, the youngest of the teens charged in the case, Dillon Siebert, 14 at the time and now 17, was sentenced Wednesday to seven years in prison under a deal that also calls for him to serve three years in juvenile detention despite the objections of families of the victims and representatives of the Senegalese community in the city.

Siebert, originally charged as a juvenile, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in adult court under a deal that prosecutors and the defense said balanced his lesser role in planning the fire, his remorse and interest in rehabilitation with the horror of the crime.

The cases against the other two teens, including the alleged ringleader, Kevin Bui, and Gavin Seymour, who were 16 at the time of the fire, are still pending in adult court where they are charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, arson and burglary.

Amadou Beye, who lost his wife Hassan Diol and an infant daughter, Hawa, he had never met in the fire, called Siebert a “monster” and said that he did not just kill five people but himself too and many others connected to them. Beye, whose wife was allowed to emigrate to the United States before him, said he thinks about killing himself every day and needs medication to sleep.

“My life doesn’t make sense anymore,” Beye, wearing a sweatshirt with a large photo of his wife and baby together, with the words “Why my wife? Why my daughter?”, told told Judge Martin Egelhoff.

Also killed were Hassan Diol’s brother, Djibril, his wife, Adja Diol and their 22-month-old daughter Khadija. Their bodies were found on the first floor of the home near the front door. Their deaths prompted expressions of sympathy from Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, and as months went by without any suspects identified, led many Senegalese immigrants to install surveillance cameras at their homes.

Others spoke about the huge hole left by the loss of Djibril Diol, an engineer who was working on a large rebuilding of Interstate 70 in the city and dreamed about returning to Senegal to build roads there. He helped fellow immigrants and was a devout Muslim, waking early for morning prayers, they said.

Djibril Diol’s brother, Abou Diol, said he lost the person he trusted to give him good advice and said their father has “lost his mind” since the fire.

Friend and community leader Ousman Ba said 10 years was not justice for such a crime and wondered what would have happened if five members of a white family were killed in such a way.

“But Black lives don’t matter,” he said.

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Siebert looked toward family members and friends as they addressed Egelhoff but did not display any emotion. When he was asked to speak, he apologized for what he did to them and their family, talking about how upset he was when his grandmother died shortly before the fire without being able to see her because of coronavirus restrictions.

“I’m lucky I still have people who love me,” said Siebert, whom the defense described as a “people pleaser” who was bullied over a speech delay and fell in with Bui and Seymour amid the isolation of the pandemic.

Bui — who was identified as a suspect with the others after police asked Google to release the name of the person who had searched for the home’s address within 15 days of the fire — allegedly told investigators he had been robbed the month before the fire while trying to buy a gun and traced his iPhone to the home using an app. He admitted to setting the fire, only to find out the next day through news coverage that the victims were not the people who robbed him, according to police.

Lawyers for Bui and Seymour are challenging police’s use of the Google keyword search results, calling it a “digital dragnet” that swept up searches of billions of people around the world.

Egelhoff denied an attempt last year to have the Google search evidence thrown out, but defense lawyers have now asked the Colorado Supreme Court to consider the issue. It is scheduled to hear arguments on it in May.

The Associated Press