Police in Charlotte, North Carolina, are continuing to investigate a devastating fire that reportedly broke out at a housing complex on Saturday evening, which left a beloved community college counselor dead. Police believe arson is to blame, and have charged a man who lives in the building with murder.
According to the Charlotte Observer, the fire department was called at around 5:30 on Saturday, after a neighbor noticed smoke and flames. The victim, who has been identified as 27-year-old Amanda Strous, was found inside her apartment, clinging to life By the time the fire was put out and Strous was transported to the hospital, she had passed away. Strous’ official cause of death has not yet been determined.
A man who lived in the building, Matthew Thomas Benner, became a suspect after he was seen standing outside the burning building with blood on his hands. He reportedly took off running when he heard sirens; it took police 40 hours to find him, eventually apprehending the 28-year-old in Las Vegas. He has since been charged with murder and arson, according to the York Daily Record. Benner’s brother, Las Vegas attorney Christopher Benner, told the Charlotte Observer that he was “addressing legal matters” and did not want to comment on the case.
Since his capture, Benner has allegedly confessed to the crimes, but a motive for the murder remains unclear. Strous’s mother told the media that while she believes Benner lived in the same apartment complex as her daughter, she is not aware of any personal relationship.
According to the Charlotte Observer, Strous hailed from Pennsylvania and got a psychology degree from Shippensburg University. Strous met her fiancé, Cory McCleaf, in Pennsylvania and were engaged to be married next month. Strous apparently moved to Charlotte less than a year ago to be closer to McCleaf, though they lived separately, and she took a job as a student counselor at a local community college. The weekend of the fire was a solitary one for Strous, as both her roommate and McLeaf were out of town. According to a friend, it was likely the last weekend she would spend alone as a single woman before getting married.
Since her tragic death, another one of Strous’s close friends set up a GoFundMe to benefit McLeaf and the Strous family. In a post on the website, Katelin Pufnock wrote, “I am one of hundreds of people who consider themselves lucky to have known and loved our dearest friend, Amanda Strous. In the early evening of Saturday, June 18th, we lost an amazing young woman, brilliant mind, and loving soul… this fund is being created in hopes to give Amanda’s family, fiance, and friends the tools/resources they need to begin overcoming this awfulness.”
Shippensburg University posted a lengthy “In Memoriam” about the former student, celebrating her extensive list of accomplishments and passion for field hockey. She served as captain of the university team her senior year.
Coach Bertie Landes said, “I can still hear her laughter and her voice. Her memory will live in our hearts forever. May the lessons she taught us through her passion for life guide us in the days ahead. Our thoughts and prayers are for her fiancé and her family in the difficult days ahead. May we all re-dedicate ourselves to serving others as Amanda did in her short life with us.”
Benner is currently being held in Nevada where he awaits extradition. Reports say investigators flew to Nevada from North Carolina on Monday to interview him.