Theresa Taplin was nine months pregnant when she stood outside her home, right in the middle of the road in the 200 block of Tree St., watching a rowhome two doors down from hers go up in flames in the early morning hours of July 3, 2021.
Now, she’s conservatively hoping that by Christmas this year, she and her family will be returned to the home they haven’t been in since because of the smoke and other damage dealt by the fire.
So many tragedies, like tornadoes and earthquakes, appear instantly, capriciously. But Taplin and her husband Steve say they were the victims of a slow-motion tragedy, one about which they and their neighbors repeatedly warned city agencies, Philadelphia police, and elected officials for more than a year. Their calls went unheeded.
The Taplins, and many of their neighbors, they say, are still asking themselves: did anyone have the power to help us prevent the disaster we saw unfolding?
“It’s been six months and it — some days it feels like it’s been the longest six months of our lives, and then it feels like it’s been the fastest six months of our lives,” Theresa said.
“I wake up every day, I say, ‘Is today gonna be the day that I go back home’? I mean, I know this is ridiculous for us to think this way, but the day of the fire, Theresa looked at me and said, you need to be prepared for a total loss. And I really couldn’t grasp that,” said Theresa’s husband, Steve.
The trouble began in late 2018 when Eileen Begley, the owner of 223 Tree Street, died suddenly at the age of 66.
Speaking with Broad + Liberty, Taplin described Begley as “very lovely” and “a great neighbor who always decorated her house for the holidays, and took a lot of pride in her house.” Google Street View images from 2016 show a tidy, well-kept property in the middle of a pleasant block of South Philadelphia.
After Begley’s death, that situation began to degrade almost immediately. Begley left no known will, and the house never went through the normal process of administration that should occur in such a case. Instead, as often happens, a relative simply moved in and took informal possession of the property.
That relative was Begley’s son, Steven.
Court records show Begley had numerous brushes with the law starting in 2006. In 2013 he faced charges of trespassing. In the following years he was charged with numerous alcohol offenses, as well as possession of a controlled substance and disorderly conduct.
According to neighbors who spoke to Broad + Liberty, Steven Begley did not appear to have any job or means of support and had previously been homeless. Within a few months, two friends joined him in living there. The once orderly house began to show signs of disrepair, becoming an eyesore on the otherwise tidy block.
“He stopped taking care of the property,” Taplin says. “He was letting people with not-so-great characters stay in the house and causing all kinds of issues.” Trash began to pile up in front of the house and in the backyard. Taplin described an increase in package thefts and car break-ins, which neighbors believed was the work of Steven Begley and his friends. These problems would only multiply.
Calls to the city went unheeded.
Documents from the police department provide a glimpse into the desperate situation of those on the block.
Broad + Liberty obtained a premise history of the address, which is similar to an individual’s criminal history, but is linked to an address instead of a person. It shows the number and times of different contacts police had with a specific property — not necessarily with a specific individual.
The premise history shows 49 separate incidents starting in February 2019. There were no entries for 2018, when Eileen was still the resident.
Fifteen of those calls or contacts with PPD came in the last three months before the fire on July 3.
(The tally of 49 separate calls/contacts does not include multiple entries that occurred on the same day, only entries that were logged on different calendar days. The police department required redacting the reason for each call or contact before agreeing to release the document.)
Records show that L&I inspected the property seven times over a 22-month period, finding violations each time.
The deterioration was continuous at 223 Tree Street. Steven and his roommates failed to pay the utility bills and one by one, water, gas and electricity were cut off to the house.
In the summer of 2020, someone tossed a brick through the window. The glass was still not repaired that winter which, combined with the lack of heat, meant that the occupants would look to other, more dangerous ways of keeping warm. Neighbors hoped the cold weather might force the squatters to move elsewhere, but the mild winter of 2020-21 did not cooperate.
By spring 2021, candles were often seen burning in the house, which had no other lighting. Neighbors allege Steven routinely stole electricity from the outdoor outlets at neighboring houses, leading neighbors to install locks on them.
By this time, the three residents of the Begley house were also using their backyard as a toilet, as the house had no running water. Taplin and others called 911 to report the theft of electricity, but no action was taken.
A front door camera across the street captured the dramatic moments of the tragedy’s climax.
Advisory: The audio and video may be disturbing to some viewers.
Opening moments (5:14 a.m.) — Kayla Paskin, who had been living off and on at the address with Steven, walks down the sidewalk from 2nd Street and enters 223 Tree Street.
Minute 9:10 (5:23 a.m.) — Paskin runs out of the house and back toward 2nd Street
Minute 12:00 (5:25 a.m.) — A distinct orange glow can be seen from the front window.
Minute 13:00 (5:26 a.m.) — Joe — the only name for a third person who had been living at the home — can be seen walking down the street pushing a full shopping cart. He stops and tries to enter just as flames are beginning to break out of the window. The heat from the fire is too intense for him to enter, so he yells to alert Steven, who can be heard screaming “help!” from somewhere inside the home.
Joe leaves with the shopping cart toward 2nd Street and yells for Steve to jump.
Steve died in the fire. Paskin is charged with third-degree murder with no trial date set.
Court records give very little detail as to how the fire started, but the records also firmly point the finger at Paskin.
The Taplins have only been back in their house for administrative issues related to getting the home livable again. They and their newborn daughter and older son have moved from hotel to hotel, before finally finding a long-term rental where they now live while waiting for their home to be restored.
The Taplins also reached out to City Councilman Mark Squilla’s office. Squilla’s staff was sympathetic, but said their hands were tied. Anne Kelly, Squilla’s chief of staff, told Broad + Liberty of their attempts to help and the limits to what they could accomplish.
“We asked L&I to inspect the property and issue any warranted violations,” Kelly said. “We checked the status of the real estate taxes — they were up to date, so we could not pursue Sheriff Sale. We asked the utility companies to shut service for non-payment. We asked the DA’s Office and the Police about eviction, which we understand was not an option because the son had rights to the property.”
City records confirm that the taxes were paid on time until this year, probably by the credit union that still held the mortgage on the property.
L&I, meanwhile, also said it did all that it could within its legal authority.
“The complaints that L&I inspectors were able to confirm were for poor exterior maintenance, including trash, a broken window, and a fence in need of repair,” said L&I communications director Karen Guss.
Guss said L&I tried to bring two of the violations to court.
“These violations, while infuriating to the neighbors — and understandably so — are an insufficient basis for the government to remove residents from the home.”
“Other complaints L&I received about this address during the relevant time period required inspectors to conduct interior inspections in order to confirm. However, inspectors were unable to gain access to the property. When someone answered the door, they refused to allow the inspector inside; otherwise the inspector found no activity at the property,” Guss added.
“Although it is frustrating to complainants (and to inspectors) when inspectors cannot get inside of a home, it is important to remember that inspectors are agents of the government; individuals are not required to welcome agents of the government into a private home, and the agents lack authority to force their way indoors,” Guss concluded.
The Taplins are asking if there was any way at all to avoid the tragedy they foresaw.
“It’s just super frustrating that the things that we pay for, the things that we put our faith in, are letting us down,” Steve said after reviewing the response from L&I.
“We’re citizens in Philadelphia who — we pay our taxes, take care of our property, are good neighbors,” Theresa said. “And we’re trying to reach out to everyone [in government]. And so were many people on our block, to get help for us, for this individual, for the people that lived with him. And time and time again, we’re just told, ‘We can’t can’t help you.’”
“Okay, so who? When we’re in this situation where we need help, who are we supposed to turn to? And we were told, ‘We can’t help you,’ and now we’re the ones who don’t have a home.”
Kyle Sammin is a senior contributor to The Federalist, co-host of the Conservative Minds podcast, and resident of Montgomery County. He writes regularly for Broad + Liberty. @KyleSammin
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports
One thought on “A nightmare on Tree Street”
The man who was murdered was my father. Lmao, my grandmother, Eileen left everything to me but he destroyed everything before I had a chance to do anything. Shame the house went down.