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Police: 'Teenage angst' led Clearwater girl, 11, and teen boyfriend to try to set mom on fire

CLEARWATER — As the gasoline-addled flames tore through Nancy Broadhead's home early Tuesday, she collapsed in the front yard, soot-blackened and burned.

Neighbors said they heard her screaming, shouting into the cold night a mother's darkest fear.

"My baby! Where's my baby! Where's my baby!" she called. Broadhead thought her 11-year-old daughter was inside, that she had stumbled out of the burning house without her.

But, police say, it was the child and her boyfriend who had wanted the house to burn — mother and all.

On Tuesday, Clearwater police arrested the girl and her boyfriend, Jack Ault, on charges of attempted murder and arson. Police said the two doused the mother's bed with gasoline, then set it ablaze as she slept.

"The 11-year-old girl and her 15-year-old boyfriend plotted to basically set the mom on fire and leave her to die," said Clearwater police spokeswoman Beth Watts.

On the day before Broadhead's 48th birthday, she had survived an attempt to burn her alive, her home was gutted, and her daughter institutionalized.

The motive, police say, was "teenage angst."

"It escalated yesterday when (the mom) confronted the daughter about stealing some of her cigarettes," Watts said.

Neighborhood friends say there may have been more to it.

"She said she was going to get married," said Kevin Otto, 16, who overheard her say so during a football game a week ago.

The St. Petersburg Times is not identifying the girl because of her age.

A MySpace page attributed to a 15-year-old Jack Ault of Clearwater includes a posting dated 2 a.m. on Monday, about 24 hours before the fire. He said he and his girlfriend "are back to together.'' And he lists his mood: "in Love."

When rescuers arrived at 1580 Huntington Lane about 1:15 a.m., they found the single-family home in flames. But Broadhead had escaped after she awoke when a smoke alarm went off.

She was taken to Morton Plant Hospital and later transferred to the Tampa General Hospital burn unit for serious burns and smoke inhalation.

Tuesday afternoon, her condition was upgraded to fair. She declined to speak with reporters.

Police said the home was extensively damaged. Broadhead, who neighbors say worked as a waitress, also has two sons, who were not home at the time of the fire, Watts said.

At some point Tuesday, the daughter returned home and agreed to go to police headquarters for questioning, Watts said.

At that point, "The whole plot started to unravel," she said.

The girl was detained under the state's Baker Act for psychiatric assessment after making statements that made detectives believe she may try to harm herself, Watts said.

• • •

Broadhead's neighbors painted a picture of a family in disarray: a mother who was losing control and a daughter testing her boundaries.

"She didn't get along with her mom at all," said Janice Otto, who lives down the street. "It seemed like her mom didn't have a lot of control over her."

Kevin, Janice's son, said the daughter would talk about stealing things from Walgreens. Recently, he said, the girl's mom caught her smoking cigarettes with two older boys and that caused a big fight between them.

But the troubled relationship is also revealed in Nancy Broadhead's arrest record.

She was pulled over the night of July 4, 2002, according to Clearwater police records, accused of driving drunk with her then 4-year-old daughter in the car. She was arrested on charges of child neglect and DUI

Broadhead was sentenced to probation, but violated the terms in March 2003 when she tested positive for marijuana, according to court records.

Then on March 21, 2005, Clearwater police accused Broadhead of drunkenly pummeling her daughter, then 7, with her fists. Charges were dropped, and her attorney at the time said it was a "false accusation."

The girl told police that her mother "repeatedly hits her," and that she was in fear of her.

• • •

Mike Jackson, whose back yard abuts Broadhead's, said his son Mikey, 10, used to play with the girl until this year when she started attending middle school. Jackson, 33, has lived in the neighborhood eight years.

She "is a nice girl, just in need of guidance," he said. "She joined the middle school crowd and slid away from us."

She started hanging out with older boys. Ault was one of them.

His first arrest came when he was 8, for battery. More followed. Between October and November, he was arrested twice within one week, including two counts of domestic battery and one of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

On Tuesday, Ault was taken into custody at a friend's house. He was also charged with grand theft for stealing Broadhead's car. The Ford Focus, which police say the children fled in after the fire, was found abandoned at a church less than 2 miles away.

Police say they would take Ault to the Pinellas County Juvenile Assessment Center.

Ault's mother, Shannon Mastrangelo, answered her front door with tears streaming down her face, a cell phone to her ear.

"My son was just arrested," she said. "I don't have time for anything."

• • •

Families of both of the accused have extensive case records with the Florida Department of Children and Families, said spokeswoman Erin Gillespie.

Case workers have responded to calls at least once every year since 1998 for the Broadheads and since 2000 for Ault's family. The details of those cases are not public unless granted by a court.

There are no open DCF cases with either family, Gillespie said.

• • •

Watts declined to discuss whether the children admitted the crime to police.

"Keep in mind we're still working it," Watts said Tuesday afternoon. "We're still in the process of doing interviews."

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said it was too early to know if his office would charge the accused as juveniles or adults.

Prosecutors will study the case after the investigation is concluded, he said, but added, "it doesn't sound like the type of crime you'd expect kids to be committing."

One of the key issues to consider will be "how extensive the injuries are of this lady."

Bartlett said that as a long-time prosecutor, he sometimes tells himself: "I thought I had seen everything. Just when you think you have, here comes along something like this."

Times staff writers Emily Nipps, Kim Wilmath, Drew Harwell, Jamal Thalji, Curtis Krueger and researcher Caryn Baird contributed.

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Police: 'Teenage angst' led Clearwater girl, 11, and teen boyfriend to try to set mom on fire 12/29/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 9:28am]

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