A sleepy suburban subdivision in Glen Carbon woke before sunrise on a chilly March morning to fire trucks and police cars surrounding a home engulfed in flames.
Sixteen-and-a-half miles away, Cristy Campbell drove a blue-gray Nissan Armada SUV, with a 3-month-old baby inside, off a two-lane highway and into Silver Lake near Highland.
A mystery surrounding the two events and their possible connections began unfolding shortly after 5:30 a.m. Thursday and continued through the day. Questions mounted as officials worked to identify a person who died in the fire as well as Cristy Campbell’s body, found hours later in the lake. Many questions were still unanswered Thursday evening.
The home at 15 Dogwood Lane where seven children lived had burned beyond a liveable state by 7 a.m. Neighbors said the children’s parents lived there, too. One person died in the fire, but Madison County Coroner Stephen Nonn said he had not determined a positive identity as of Thursday evening.
“It’s my understanding the body was very badly burned,” Madison County Sheriff John Lakin said in a Thursday afternoon news conference.
An autopsy was scheduled for Friday morning.
Six of the children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, escaped the burning home, which is owned by Cristy Campbell, 32, according to property records. Two of the children fled to a nearby Walmart for help. Chilling surveillance footage from a neighbor’s home shows the children tottering down the street in the dark.
The seventh child was later found floating inside the gray SUV in Silver Lake.
A passerby saw the vehicle drive into the lake and called 911.
That’s when paramedic Todd Zobrist arrived at the lake and became a hero. He dived into the 46-degree water, swam more than 50 feet and pulled the baby to safety. Zobrist then performed CPR on the baby while on the hood of the partially-submerged SUV. The baby was then flown to a St. Louis hospital.
“Todd Zobrist saved that child’s life today,” the sheriff said.
Zobrist was recovering and “trying to stay warm” as of Thursday afternoon, Highland Fire-EMS Chief Brian Wilson said.
“When everyone heard someone jumped in the water, there was no question of who it was,” Wilson added.
The child was in good condition as of Thursday evening, Lakin said, and was expected to be released from the hospital Friday. The other children were placed in the care of a relative.
After the vehicle went into the lake, conservation police with a sonar-equipped boat searched the water, while police with dogs searched in the woods near Silver Lake. Glen Carbon police had issued a search alert Thursday morning for Cristy Campbell, describing her as a “person of interest” and “possibly endangered.
Todd Zobrist saved that child’s life today.
Madison County Sheriff John Lakin
Hours after Zobrist saved the baby, Cristy Campbell’s body was found in the lake not far from where the vehicle sank.
Police had been called to 15 Dogwood Lane about 50 times since 2010 for various reasons, including barking dogs, 911 hangups and other calls for service, the sheriff said.
Neighbors said while the Campbell home was a little chaotic with so many children running around and playing, they seemed like a “normal” family. The Country Meadows subdivision where they lived is the kind of neighborhood with street names like “Red Bud Lane” and “Meadow Lane.” It’s tucked away behind a busy shopping area.
“They were nice people,” said Sherry Ricker, who has lived across the street from the Campbells’ house since 2004.
Ricker said Cristy Campbell lived there with her children and husband, though it could not be independently verified Thursday that Cristy Campbell’s husband or ex-husband lived there.
Mitchell Langenhorst has lived across the street from the house for two years.
“They were normal people,” Langenhorst said. “The kids were pretty hectic.”
Langenhorst watched the story unfold on televised news. When he saw the Nissan Armada pulled from Silver Lake, he said he recognized it right away.
“I recognized that car,” he said. “I saw it parked out front (of 15 Dogwood Lane) all the time.”
Court records show Cristy Campbell and her ex-husband Justin Campbell’s marriage was rocky. They had their first child in 2002, when Cristy Campbell was still a teenager, and they married in 2006. In 2005, Justin Campbell was charged with aggravated domestic violence, a felony, for allegedly slapping his wife, who was pregnant at the time. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor as part of a plea bargain, and he paid a $500 fine and was placed on probation for a year.
The couple filed for divorce in 2010, but changed their minds and ended the proceedings. Cristy Campbell requested an order of protection against Justin Campbell in April 2012, but requested that it be allowed to expire 15 days later. She filed for divorce again in September 2012.
Justin Campbell failed to respond to the filing before the court date in 2013, according to court records, and it was finalized without his participation. The divorce included provisions for child support and visitation.
When everyone heard someone jumped in the water, there was no question of who it was.”
Highland Fire-EMS Chief Brian Wilson
A search of Cristy Campbell’s records turned up mostly parking tickets, though she was charged in 2014 with allowing her 5-year-old child to leave their home unattended. The charges were dropped after she completed parenting classes.
Cristy Campbell’s posts on social media depict a happy motherhood. Her Facebook profile picture showed her receiving a kiss from a dolphin. One post showed pictures of a child posing with a “Do the Right Thing” award. Family portraits and pictures of her then-newborn baby dot the mother’s Facebook profile.
Whether Cristy Campbell’s ex-husband died Wednesday was unclear as of Thursday evening, but the sheriff pointed out the death toll could have been nine instead of two if it weren’t for the bravery of emergency responders and police.