Coroner: Barnwell fire death now being investigated as homicide

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, Nov. 8, 2013

BARNWELL, S.C. (WRDW) -- From the outside, things almost look normal, but inside a Barnwell home on Berry Street, the situation is anything but.

"Donna was one who would take her shoes off of her feet and put them on yours," says neighbor and close friend Joann O'Neal of Donna Dempsey. "She was just a lovable person."

O'Neal lives across the street. Just a week ago, she returned from the store to find officers, firefighters, and medics swarming her good friend's home.

"I waited patiently until I could get an answer. Where is she? How is she? Finally, her fiancee told me she was gone," O'Neal says.

Barnwell County Coroner Lloyd Ward says smoke inhalation from a fire killed 56-year-old Dempsey and her two dogs, Billy and Butterbean. However, on Friday, the coroner tells News 12 the case is now being investigated as a homicide. Before the smoke inhalation, Ward says the autopsy shows she suffered trauma to the head.

"Two o'clock [in the morning] I got up. I looked over her way. The light was still on in the bedroom and the living room. At 4:30, the same thing," says O'Neal, who admits she'd heard to rumor of foul play.

The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) tells us an investigation is ongoing. Neighbors say SLED agents were in the area on Thursday.

"They're checking it out," says O'Neal. "They're doing a thorough investigation."

Meanwhile, O'Neal says she might pack her bags and move as she suffers from the pain of losing her close friend.

"We had a thing that we would burn our lights at night on the front porch," she says. "Now, there's no light here. I don't know what I'm going to do now."

Dempsey's daughter Tracey reached out to News 12 and said her mother will be missed. She says her mother would have given away her last dime. She says her mother also has a son with cerebral palsy.

Currently, there are no suspects in custody. However, check back for updates as they develop.

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