- Associated Press - Friday, June 20, 2014

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Perhaps it was the course of one day. Or maybe it was years in the making.

But the lives of four Fowler family children changed forever.

On Saturday, Rickey Fowler and his daughter spent 90 minutes waiting to catch a bus from North Jacksonville into town so his wife incarcerated there could spend time with one of her four children, little Janet. From there, Fowler and Janet headed over to the Florida Country Superfest at EverBank Field.

Hours later, Fowler was jailed.

By Tuesday, Janet Fowler was dead.

Had things gone differently, Janet would have turned 10 months old Friday.

Janet died in a mobile home fire along with her 4-year-old brother, Richard, “Bubba” Fowler, and her 2-year-old sister, Rachel. The children’s grandmother Shelia “Rosie” Swearingen, 53, who was caring for them at the time, also died in the Tuesday fire after some in the family believe that Rachel and Bubba got hold of Swearingen’s cigarette lighter.

“No, no, no, she didn’t die. Oh my God, this is breaking my heart,” said Kim Caiker.

Caiker and Fowler were not friends.

In fact, Caiker, of Niceville, was quite upset to even see Fowler at the country music festival with his infant daughter. The crowds were large. The music was loud and when there wasn’t a downpour, it was hot.

“I thought what is that man doing with a baby carriage?” said Caiker.

Caiker hoped against all odds that the carriage was empty and Fowler was just using it to cart things around.

It wasn’t and he wasn’t.

Fowler, Caiker said, was stumbling around and appeared unaware of what was going on around him. She said when she saw Janet’s little arm drop out of the stroller and into plain sight she raced over to him and asked why he was there with a baby.

Fowler explained how the child’s mother was locked up and that he already had the tickets to the show. He told her he didn’t want them to go to waste. He then asked Caiker if she could help him change her daughter’s clothes because she had vomited all over herself.

Caiker did.

“All along, I had such a bad feeling,” said Caiker.

Police apparently did, too, when they hauled Fowler off to jail on child neglect charges as well as charges for having a bottle of pills on him.

Five days later, both Rickey Fowler, 54, and his wife, Jennifer, 31, were planning a funeral for the three children and Jennifer Fowler’s mother after each was let out early.

They have no money.

They have no insurance.

“Daddy, I want them back so badly,” said Jennifer Fowler to her father as she rocked in a chair with her arms wrapped across her belly. “I want them back.”

“Now you try and hold it together,” Clayton Woods told his daughter.

The lone survivor of the fire, Hattie, 6, spent some time Thursday curled up in a pink bedroom at Woods’ house watching a Disney movie.

“I love them a bunch,” Hattie whispered into her mother’s ears after her mother asked her if she was thinking of her brother and sisters.

“They were lying down,” Hattie said of her last memory of her brothers and sisters.

And then Hattie walked away.

A mental health worker came to Woods’ house with a small bag of trinkets for Hattie on Thursday. The worker also wanted to speak to the family about counseling services. It’s expected that there will be many visitors over the course of the next several days, weeks and perhaps months as the Department of Children and Families is once again involved in the Fowler family’s lives.

Rickey Fowler said child protective services have been called several times over the years to check on the welfare of the children. He said they have been to his now-destroyed mobile home on Palmetto Street and to the grandfather’s house on New Berlin Road, both in the Oceanway neighborhood of North Jacksonville.

John Harrell, the spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, would only confirm that the agency had closed a case recently and that another one was opened after Rickey Fowler was jailed on Saturday.

“Had they not arrested me, my children would be alive,” said Rickey Fowler.

He and his wife also blame the Department of Children and Families for allowing the children’s grandmother to care for the children.

“My dad took care of them,” said Jennifer Fowler.

Neither was willing to outright say that Swearingen was unfit to care for the children, but at the same time insisted the children wouldn’t have died if they had stayed put in Woods’ home and had not gone back to the mobile home with Swearingen.

Woods, 68, and Swearingen never married after the birth of their daughter Jennifer Fowler. However, Swearingen and her boyfriend moved in with Woods a few months ago after Woods had a pacemaker put in.

Woods was a constant in the children’s lives.

Harrell of the Department of Children and Families said Woods’ home had been cleared by a caseworker for the children to stay there after Rickey Fowler was arrested. The department insists that the idea to bring the kids to the doublewide on Palmetto Street was Swearingen’s idea and not theirs, as a caseworker had yet to determine if the home was safe enough and suitably stocked with food for the children.

Harrell said a caseworker was planning to go to the doublewide early Tuesday evening.

The three children were dead shortly after the 5:40 p.m. fire that day.

“We’re talking a matter of hours,” Harrell said.

Swearingen, who for the last several years has been on medication for mental health issues, was designated a sex offender in 1997 when she had sex with her other daughter’s then-high school boyfriend. In 2003 and in 2004 she was jailed for failing to register as a sex offender.

“It’s no secret that we’ve all got (arrest) records,” said Shawnie Black, Jennifer Fowler’s sister. “But it doesn’t mean that we can’t take care of our children.”

In a moment of reflection amid the emotion of the last five days, Rickey Fowler admitted taking care of the four kids while his wife was in jail was difficult. He also said maybe some of the decisions and actions he made over the years may not have been in his best interest.

“This is telling us something. Why did they have to take our kids?” he says of a higher power. “It hurts us. I feel like they are punishing me for something.”


Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide