CLEVELAND -- The man accused of starting Cleveland's deadliest house fire is a dope peddler with a quick, violent temper that explodes so often that even his fellow prison inmates had reason to fear.
Authorities spoke only sparingly about Antun Lewis, 24, today after a federal grand jury indicted him on a charge of arson resulting in nine deaths in connection with the East 87th Street fire on May 21, 2005.
But records and interviews depict a man who used intimidation and violence to make a name for himself in the neighborhood near his home on East 84th Street, which was about a half-mile from where the fire was set
Lewis has a strong, controlling personality that drew weaker people to him as he sold cocaine in East Side neighborhoods, according to officials who tracked his criminal career.
Foes who crossed him ended up bloodied, no matter on the street or behind bars. He pummeled an inmate in a protective security unit of the Cuyahoga County Jail in 2005 and beat up another inmate at a state prison last year.
Both needed medical attention.
On the street, prostitutes and other cohorts looked out for him to stay in his good graces, officials said.
"He was a player," said U.S. Attorney Bill Edwards. "People in those neighborhoods were afraid of him."
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors would not discuss a motive for the fire or whether Lewis was tied to anyone in the home. At a news conference, Edwards said he didn't know whether Lewis had dated one of the women there.
Lewis' sister said he briefly lived in the house on East 87th Street. Domaneek Lewis said her brother adored the children who died there.
The Lewis family called the charges preposterous.
Domaneek Lewis said her brother is a drug dealer, not a killer. Investigators ran out of leads so they pinned the crime on her brother because of his criminal past, she said.
"My brother had nothing to do with this," she said. "Nobody else is available to be blamed."
Lewis' cousin, Aaron Ward, also questioned the charges. He said his cousin wouldn't harm anyone in the home because Lewis was close to all of them.
"Everybody was like family to him," Ward said. "He is an innocent man."
But Lewis has been found guilty many times. He began his tour of Cuyahoga County courtrooms in 2003, when he was charged with selling drugs near a school, possessing criminal tools, stealing a car and resisting arrest. A judge sentenced him to six months in prison.
Within a few months of leaving prison, he was charged with failing to comply with a police order.
While awaiting trial on the charge, Lewis was racked up several more arrests.
He was accused of selling drugs and scheduled for trial May 5 in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. He never showed up, and police were ordered to find him.
Lewis was arrested a week after the East 87th Street fire, partly for his own protection. Rumors swirled in the neighborhood that Lewis poured the gas and lit the match that started the blaze.
Neighbors wanted justice, and the man who had once ruled with fear found solace in a jail cell, according to records and interviews.
While he was behind bars at the County Jail, Lewis attacked a 38-year-old inmate in the protective security unit June 16, 2005, a fight that required several guards to claw Lewis away from the other man.
Lewis was convicted of aggravated assault in the jail beating, as well as failure to comply, drug trafficking and a weapons charge. He was shipped off to prison for 16 months, going to the Belmont Correctional Institution.
Trouble soon followed him south.
Last year, prison officials said Lewis pummeled a 23-year-old robber from Stark County. That fight prompted state officials to ship Lewis to the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution in Lucasville, home to some of the state's most violent inmates.
And now with the indictment, people outside prison walls are focusing on Lewis and asking how someone could have set a fire that took so many lives.
"This goes way beyond a crime," said Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath. "This is tragic."