Detroit mother fights for son’s innocence in house fire where firefighter was killed

House fire took place on Nov. 15, 2008

DETROIT – A Detroit mother is fighting for her son’s innocence regarding a house fire that took place in 2008, where a firefighter was killed.

It has been over 14 years since the Detroit Fire Department lost one of its shining stars, firefighter Walter Harris. He was killed fighting a fire that a jury determined to be arson.

A man named Mario Willis is still in prison for that fire. But it’s a conviction that doesn’t add up to many, including his mother, Maxine.

Maxine loves to talk about her son. Smart, dynamic, passionate, and driven. Everything good except his address -- which is currently the Saginaw Correctional Facility.

For more than a decade, Maxine’s cell has been her basement which she turned into an evidence room. Her son Mario is serving a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder and was convicted of arranging an arson that killed a beloved Detroit firefighter.

Related: Man convicted in Detroit firefighter’s death to continue spending decades in prison

The night Harris lost his life was a night that broke the heart of the Detroit Fire Department.

The central figure in the investigation was Darian Dove, a handyman who Mario often hired. The night of the fire, he and a woman were using an empty house owned by Mario for a rendezvous. Dove said he started a fire with a little gasoline for them to keep warm, but he says the fire got too close to the gas can. Suddenly, the place was on fire, and he called 911.

Detroit firefighters arrived and worked to extinguish the fire, but it turned into a disaster when firefighter Harris was killed when the ceiling collapsed on him.

Harris was immensely popular. A father of six, a 17-year veteran of the force, and the department chaplain. The 38-year-old firefighter from Sterling Heights was survived by his wife and six sons. According to Fire Hero, Harris grew up on Detroit’s east side and graduated from Detroit De La Salle High School. During his entire career, he worked out of the Engine 23 Squad 3 firehouse off of East Grand Boulevard.

“He was one of our best, one of the city’s best,” said Detroit Homicide Detective Duane Black back in 2010. “He was dedicated to the department, his family, and community.”

Detroit veteran reporter advocates for wrongfully convicted

When a first responder is lost, understandably, the investigation intensifies. Dove says he was pressured to change his story, to say it wasn’t an accident.

Bill Proctor was a longtime Detroit reporter for WXYZ, an ABC affiliate in Detroit, who now works on innocence appeals. He is also the founder of Seeking Justice, an advocacy organization for the wrongfully convicted.

“I think it’s criminal here that someone with a badge, someone with authority, convinced someone to lie,” said Proctor.

Eventually, Dove did change his story and told police Willis paid him 20 bucks to burn the place down.

The jury was also told the burn pattern suggested arson, but a later forensic study supported the accident theory. Also, in court, the prosecution said that Mario didn’t offer an alibi.

The house no longer stands on East Kirby. Dove was the one who called 911, and arsonists typically don’t contact the fire department.

Prosecutors suggested to the jury that this was a case of insurance fraud. What wasn’t explained to the jury was that Mario didn’t have the property insured against fire.

Read: Man to be re-sentenced again in connection with 2008 fire that killed Detroit firefighter

Reality for Willis family post 2008 Detroit house fire

The phone rang while Maxine spoke about her son and the 2008 Detroit house fire. It was Mario calling from Saginaw Correctional Facility.

Devin: Clearly, there were some mistakes in the prosecution. But there were some pretty glaring mistakes in your defense, too, right?

Mario: Oh, yes, sir, yes, sir. Unfortunately, my trial attorney, he, he, his exact words to me, ‘Uh, mario, this is going to be a formality at best.’

In fact, during Mario’s appeal, his attorney pointed to several instances of ineffective assistance by his trial lawyer. Mario knows that it’s hardly unusual for an inmate to proclaim his innocence.

“When I came in here, I said, ‘Oh my god, everybody’s innocent. no one did it.’ And so okay, we have to show them through evidence. just as I talk to you, sir, I would compel you to look through everything,” expressed Mario.

That’s fairly easy thanks to Maxine’s exhaustive work, in her home and online. She sees a lot of similarities between Mario and Harris - it’s hard to miss. And her heart breaks for Harris’ wife, Syri.

“She was quoted saying that ‘if there’s been anything hidden, any wrongdoing, any egos involved, it needs to come out.’ So we’re both looking for the same thing, the truth,” explained Maxine.

Innocence cases always require an army. Maxine has been tireless, as has Proctor, Mario’s new attorney Craig Daly, and Eddie Allen of the Metro Times has covered this from A to Z. It’s now in the hands of the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit. So Mario and his team now wait.

“The jury didn’t hear the whole thing. The jury never understood that this was an accident because they had so many people in government telling them ‘No, this was a conspiracy.’ They lied. They manipulated the truth. They sent two innocent men to prison. This should not be.”

Bill Proctor, Seeking Justice

We must point out a terrible development for Maxine, aside from this case. A few weeks ago, a wrong-way driver on I-96 killed her son, Marvin, Mario’s younger brother. So life has been a study of despair for the Willis family.

----> More: 2 killed in head-on crash after Jeep goes wrong way on Michigan interstate

Previous coverage relating to the Detroit house fire

Man Found Guilty In Firefighter’s Death

Arsonist responsible in Detroit firefighter’s 2008 death to be resentenced

About the Authors:

Devin Scillian is equally at home on your television, on your bookshelf, and on your stereo. Devin anchors the evening newscasts for Local 4. Additionally, he moderates Flashpoint, Local 4's Sunday morning news program. He is also a best-selling author of children's books, and an award-winning musician and songwriter.

Elizabeth Washington is a Digital News Editor and has been with Local 4 News since April 2022.