Tragedy strikes troubled family

3 children, grandmother die in mobile home fire; 4th child hospitalized

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The parents of the three children killed in a fire were in jail at the time. The children were living with their grandmother, a registered sex offender who also died in the fire.

Sheila Swearingen, 53, was caring for the couple's four grandchildren. Janet Fowler (pictured), 10 months; Rachel Fowler, 2; and Richard Jr. "Bubba" Fowler, 4, died in the fire.

       IMAGES: Fire destroys home, takes 4 lives

Corrections officers informed the parents of the children about the fire Tuesday night, and the mother, Jennifer Fowler, 31, was released to house arrest so she could go to the hospital.

Jennifer Fowler (booking photo below on right) has been in jail since March 13 on an arrest for violating her probation. Her previous charges include making a false report to law enforcement in December 2013, domestic battery in September 2013 and disorderly intoxication, public disturbance and criminal mischief in August 2012.

The father, Richard Fowler (pictured on left), 54, was most recently arrested Saturday evening while attending the Florida Country Superfest.

According to the arrest report, an off-duty officer working at EverBank Field saw that Fowler was having trouble changing the clothes of one of his children who had thrown up on himself. The officer saw Fowler swaying from side to side and his speech was slurred.

"Since the suspect was in sole custody, care and control of the victim and too intoxicated to care for (him)," wrote the arresting officer, who arrested Fowler on a charge of child neglect. When a search of the suspect turned up unprescribed pills, he was also charged with possession of a controlled substance and resisting an officer without violence.

Fowler's bond was set at $17,500, but News4Jax learned that he was released from jail early Wednesday morning. He has previous arrests for domestic battery in 2003 and 2009, public intoxication in 2010 and disorderly conduct in 2012.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said Sheriff John Rutherford and Director of Corrections Tara Wildes discussed the fire and the parents' incarceration. They said Jennifer Fowler, with approval of a judge, was released under home detention, wearing an ankle monitor, until such time when she will return to fulfill her sentence.

They said Chief Judge Donald Moran agreed to Richard Fowler's release pending his next court date.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, the children were already living with the grandmother -- Swearingen (pictured) -- before his most recent arrests. A DCF spokesman said the family had been investigated in the past and reopened the case after Saturday's arrest.

Swearingen has had her own problems with the law.  She is on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's sexual offender database for a 1997 conviction for lewd and lascivious act on a child under 16. 


According to police records, Swearingen was also arrested in April 2005 for failing to update her address as a sexual offender, then in December of that year for burglary and violating a protective injunction. The arrest report says she broke into the home of a 49-year-old man because it was his birthday. The victim told police Swearingen was homeless and so regularly comes to the home of him and his mother that they took out an injunction against her.

FDLE reports that Swearingen has used seven alias and also served time in state prison on a 2002 conviction for failure to register as a sex offender.

DCF said Swearingen did not have formal custody of her grandchildren, but volunteered to watch them while the parents were both in jail.  Despite her status as a sex offender, Swearingen was not restricted from being around children.

News4Jax learned that the mobile home where the fire occurred is owned by the Fowler family (pictured below), and that Swearingen had asked DCF on Tuesday -- hours before the fire -- if she could move the kids back into their home rather than live with her because that's where they had cribs, clothes, toys and other things.

DCF said they are meeting Wednesday to determine what to do with Hattie when she is released from the hospital and what recommendation to make to a family-court judge for permanent custody. 

In light of the tragedy, DCF said it would also review its policies and procedures to make sure everything was done correctly.

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