Todd Mandoline was so enraged when his ex-girlfriend didn't respond to a text message that he torched her car, igniting a quick-moving fire that killed the Lombard woman who had just celebrated her birthday, prosecutors said Wednesday.
The 23-year-old Villa Park man was being held without bond on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated arson and arson in the Sunday fire that killed Paula Morgan, 24, and critically injured her 25-year-old friend.
DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said Mandoline was one of several people at a birthday party for Morgan hours before the fire. At some point, an argument broke out and Mandoline was driven home. He then walked about two miles back to the party and stood outside the victim's home, sending her text messages for hours.
"What helped kind of set him off was that, at one point, she didn't respond," Berlin said.
He added Mandoline watched the victim come out of the house at one point, then saw her go back inside.
"The defendant became enraged, picked up a piece of paper, twisted it up, put it in the gas tank of the victim's vehicle parked in the driveway and took a lighter and set it on fire," Berlin said. "The whole car was engulfed in flames. Unfortunately, the fire spread to the home as well."
Authorities said the fire moved quickly from the vehicle to an attached garage, then into the home on the 1000 block of South Ahrens Avenue. Firefighters pulled Morgan and Jason Cassidy of Villa Park from the upstairs when they arrived about 4 a.m.
Morgan's 6-year-old son, who lived there with his mother and grandmother, heard a smoke detector and managed to escape on his own. Berlin said the child wandered outside and told several partygoers sleeping in the backyard that there was a fire.
Morgan, who would have turned 25 on Monday, died of smoke inhalation, Berlin said. Her dog Spencer also was killed, according to court records. Cassidy was taken to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where he remained in critical but stable condition Wednesday.
"He is fighting for his life as we speak," Berlin said.
Lombard police arrested Mandoline, of the 200 block of Terry Lane, about 7:30 a.m. Sunday. After an initial denial, he "did admit setting the fire that caused the victim's death," according to Berlin.
Berlin said Mandoline and Morgan had a dating relationship but that he could not elaborate as the investigation continued. He said investigators have yet to review some phone records that will show exactly how many texts were sent and what was said.
Earlier Wednesday, Mandoline briefly appeared before Judge John Kinsella, who set arraignment for Aug. 13. The defendant was cuffed with his hands in front and wore a yellow jumpsuit indicating he's considered a high-risk inmate at the county jail.
Mandoline was represented by a public defender but told Kinsella he is working to retain private legal counsel, prompting the judge to delay a formal bond hearing. A private attorney referenced by Mandoline in court did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
If convicted, Mandoline could face up to natural life in prison. He has prior convictions for marijuana possession, driving under the influence and criminal damage to property, according to court records.
Several of Morgan's family members and friends were in court Wednesday but declined to comment. They have asked for privacy, prosecutors said.
"Our hearts go out to the victims' families," said Berlin, who described the case as "horrific."
"Fortunately, (Morgan's) son was able to get out from the flaming house," he said. "Unfortunately, however, her son will now grow up without his mother's love, comfort and protection, which is just heartbreaking."