TAMPA — Hillsborough County Fire Rescue officials are looking into leaks of information to the media during last week's fire at an Avila mansion in which firefighters found the bodies of a married couple and their two teenagers.
As firefighters battled the blaze early in the morning of May 7, Meredyth Censullo, a former television reporter who now describes herself as a social media reporter, began tweeting information she attributed to an unidentified source.
She was among the first to tweet that three bodies were inside, with gunshot wounds to the head. She said a fourth victim was unconfirmed.
“Accelerant,” she tweeted, “high fireworks throughout the home.”
Her tweets continued to describe the scene inside the burned out house even before Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies were allowed inside to begin their criminal investigation into what turned out to be a murder/suicide crime scene.
This tweet from Censullo drew widespread attention:
“Source: bodies found in burning mansion in Avila had heavy duty fireworks wrapped around their heads.”
Her tweets soon were being picked up by publications like the New York Post and The Guardian in England.
That bit of information turned out to be wrong. Though there were fireworks scattered throughout the house, none of the bodies were wrapped in explosive materials.
A day later, Censullo tweeted this:
“Followed up w/source. Said fireworks observed “around” victim(s) (original verbiage “wrapped”). Official info will come from HCSO.”
Censullo could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Her Twitter page shows she has more than 6,400 followers and has sent out more than 20,500 tweets.
Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies later confirmed that Darrin Campbell, 49, shot and killed his wife, Kimberly, 51, and two children, Colin, 18, and Megan, 15, before starting the fire with a flammable liquid and turning the gun on himself.
With this fire, as with all large fires, fire rescue officials critique every aspect of the incident from response time to firefighting tactics to what went wrong and what went right, said Lori Hudson, communications director for Hillsborough County.
“Part of this review is the communications,” she said, and that includes information that was made public before being confirmed through an official source.
“Hillsborough County Fire Rescue,” she said, “takes this matter most seriously.”
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is not part of the procedure.
“We are not conducting any investigation,” said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter. “It is our understanding that they are conducting their own; county fire is doing it and it's all internal to them.”
While there was no impediment to the investigation, she said, such information made public without confirmation could cause a level of confusion.
“When it's an active investigation,” she said, “certain information should not be released.”
Carter said some of the tweets involved observations “that were released prior to law enforcement being aware of and being able to confirm them.”