Ringleader of fire that killed 5 in Senegalese family, ripping hole in the community, gets 60 years

DENVER (AP) — A Colorado man was sentenced to 60 years in prison Tuesday for killing five members of an extended Senegalese family in a house fire, a crime which the victims’ friends and relatives say has forever changed their lives and their community, both in the U.S. and in the west African nation.

Kevin Bui, now 20, was the last of three teens charged in the Aug. 5, 2020, fire to be sentenced after pleading guilty to reduced charges in a plea deal. Authorities say Bui, who had recently been robbed while trying to buy a gun, mistakenly thought he had tracked down his stolen iPhone to the home and carefully plotted his retribution. But he neglected to make sure he was targeting the actual thief.

Instead, sleeping inside the home in the middle of the night were members of three immigrant families who were working to support their families back home and had nothing to do with the robbery. The family that owned the house managed to escape but all the members of two linked families renting from them were killed — Djibril Diol, 29; his 23-year-old wife, Adja Diol; and their 22-month-old daughter, Khadija, as well as Djibril Diol’s sister, Hassan Diol, 25, and her 7-month-old daughter, Hawa.

Hamady Diol, the father of Djibril and Hassan Diol, spoke during the sentencing hearing by phone from Senegal about how he needs pills to sleep after losing five members of his family.

“I’m a dead person that’s not buried yet,” he said in Pulaar through a translator.

The bodies of the victims were found on the first floor of the home near the front door, having apparently tried to escape the flames. One of the homeowners who escaped heard Djibril Diol yelling to direct people out of the house. He was an engineer who was working on a large rebuilding of Interstate 70 in Denver and was well-loved for helping fellow immigrants.

Adja Diol and her sister-in-law, Hassan Diol, both worked opposite shifts at Amazon so they could care for each other’s children and continue to send support to their families in Senegal. They dreamed of going to school to become nurses.

At the time of the fire, Hassan Diol’s husband, Amadou Beye, was in Senegal awaiting a visa to join his wife and meet his baby, who was born in the U.S.

In court, Beye called Bui a “big terrorist” who did not deserve to eat, sleep or talk to his family while in prison. Beye, who was granted permission to move to the U.S. after the fire, said he tries to avoid being alone when he’s not working to avoid thinking about his loss. He said he wears a pendant with the name of God on it as a reminder not to hurt himself.

“We can’t be normal because of you,” he said, turned toward Bui, despite Judge Karen L. Brody urging him to address her.

Bui, listening while sitting with his lawyers, did not appear to show any reaction to Beye or the other speakers during the hearing.

When he was able to speak, Bui said he was an “ignorant knucklehead” at the time of the fire. He said he could not fathom what it would be like to have family members ripped from you and recited the names of all the victims.

But he pushed back on the idea that he was a monster or a terrorist and instead said, “My heart beats the same as yours.”

“I have no excuses and nobody to blame but myself,” he said.

One of Bui’s lawyers, Rachel Lanzen, told Brody that his involvement with the fire was uncharacteristic of a young man who is polite and respectful and was raised by hard-working immigrants from Vietnam. She said Bui did not set the fire himself, pinning the blame on the youngest of the three friends charged. Police disputed that, saying that Bui confessed to starting it himself and was burned in the process.

Bui, who prosecutors say was the ringleader of the plan, told investigators he had been robbed of his phone, money and shoes while trying to buy a gun before deciding to start the fire, according to previous testimony. Around that time, he had been helping his older sister, Tanya Bui, deliver drugs, according to federal court documents. The sister’s enterprise was accidentally discovered when police searched their family’s suburban Denver home as part of the fire investigation.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Courtney Johnston emphasized the vindictiveness of Bui’s plan and said it was not just about getting his phone back. Seeming to know what was at stake, Bui sent one of his friends a message a few days before the fire talking about possibly ruining their futures by burning the house down, she noted.

After he was arrested, he only expressed regret that he had targeted the wrong people, killing immigrants like his relatives, not that he had set the fire, she said.

“He was trying to exact revenge on the person that he thought took his phone and he didn’t care who else it took down,” said Johnston. She said the crime had “ripped a hole” in the city’s Senegalese immigrant community.

In May, after a failed effort to challenge key evidence in the case, Bui pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder. Sixty other charges Bui had faced, including first-degree murder, were dropped by prosecutors, who recommended that Bui receive a 60-year sentence.

Relatives reluctantly supported the deal, seeing it as the best way to resolve the long-running criminal case.

Last year, Dillon Siebert, who was 14 at the time of the fire, was sentenced to three years in juvenile detention and seven years in a state prison program for young inmates. In March, Gavin Seymour, 19, was sentenced to 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of second-degree murder.

Surveillance video showed three suspects wearing full face masks and dark hoodies outside the home just before the fire started, but the investigation dragged on for months without any other leads. Amid fears that the fire had been a hate crime, some Senegalese immigrants installed security cameras at their homes in case they could also be targeted. The son of the home’s owner, who was working the overnight shift at a 7-Eleven when the fire broke out, was also under suspicion until Bui and his friends were identified and arrested.

Police did not believe the home, tucked in among many similar ones on a street in a dense subdivision, was picked at random. They tried a new and controversial strategy — asking Google to reveal which IP addresses had searched for the home’s address within 15 days of the fire. Five of them were in Colorado, and police obtained the names of those people through another search warrant, eventually identifying Bui, Seymour and Siebert as suspects.

In October, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the search of Google users’ keyword history, an approach critics have called a digital dragnet that threatens to undermine people’s privacy and their constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The court cautioned it was not making a “broad proclamation” on the constitutionality of such search warrants and emphasized it was ruling on the facts of just this one case.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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