Wrongful death suits stemming from the Hoover, Ala., Days Inn fire which killed four Mississippi University for Women students will proceed despite the disappearance of one defendant.
The family of Dhirajlal Bhagat, 55, the man suspected of accidentally sparking the blaze, told immigration officials he returned to his home country of India while released on his own recognizance. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency held Bhagat for an unspecified time following the Jan. 16 fire, while preparing removal proceedings, but released him to await his court date.
“We”re not releasing any further details without the signed consent of Mr. Bhagat,” said Temple Black, an ICE agent based in New Orleans.
In addition to facing deportation, Bhagat was named as a co-defendant in three wrongful death lawsuits filed by the parents of the four deceased students in Jefferson County, Ala. Investigators believe Bhagat inadvertently started the fire when he left incense burning on a prayer mantle in his first-floor room at the motel.
The four victims, Jaslynn McGee of Corinth, Jamelia Brown of Grenada, and Catherine Ann Muse and Alondan Turner of Cordova, Ala., were MUW freshmen visiting Birmingham for a shopping weekend. They died in their second-floor motel room awaiting rescue. The flames were too intense for firefighters to reach them.
No criminal charges were filed.
The remaining defendants named in the three suits have been served notice and responded. The defendants, Papasha Inc., owners of the Days Inn; SPP Inc., operators of the Days Inn; and Chris Parekh, one of the owners and the manager of the Days Inn, have hired Sirote Litigation of Birmingham as legal representation.
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judges Houston Brown and G. William Noble will preside over the hearings. They will meet with the plaintiffs and their attorneys to discuss Bhagat”s disappearance before holding a status conference in the next few months. Then they”ll set trial dates.
A paralegal adviser said the hearings “could go quickly or last three years.”
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.