Ward 3 residents largely relieved at Anthony Baye plea
Brian Donovan, of Williams street, reacting to the Baye plea. Purchase photo reprints »
Sandra Milo of Holyoke street, reacting to the Baye plea. Purchase photo reprints »
Colleen Clark of Williams Street, reacting to the Baye plea. Purchase photo reprints »
Matt Peterson of Belanger Place, reacting to the Baye plea. Purchase photo reprints »
Kara Wade of Union street, reacting to the Baye plea. Purchase photo reprints »
left, Maurine Miller holds Ashton Van Epps,2, while listening to Ashton's, mother, Wendy Van Epps react to the Baye plea.
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NORTHAMPTON — Standing on the front porch of her Union Street home Monday afternoon, Wendy Van Epps clapped her hands in joy and shouted the news to her neighbor when she heard that convicted arsonist Anthony Baye had pleaded guilty to setting the fires that terrorized her neighborhood in 2007 and 2009.
“I’m so happy. I thought he might get off because the evidence was circumstantial,” she said. “I was living here when the fire happened just a few houses down. It was terrifying.”
She described seeing the front of her neighbor’s historic home at 26 Union St. consumed by a wall of flame on Dec. 27, 2009. She thanked God that a boy, now 18, living in the home happened to be awake at 2 a.m. when the fire started and alerted his father so they could escape in time.
As part of a plea agreement, Baye pleaded guilty Monday to setting that fire and more than a dozen others in the surrounding neighborhood on Dec. 27, 2009, as well as other fires set earlier in 2009 and in 2007.
Baye pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter — reduced from murder — as part of the deal. Paul Yeskie Sr., 81, and Paul Yeskie Jr., 39, perished in their Fair Street home where Baye on Monday admitted he started a fire Dec. 27, 2009.
A few hours after the surprising and sudden resolution of the trial, many residents of the neighborhoods where many of the fires were set had already heard about Baye’s admission. Their reactions ranged from elation that he would likely be sent to state prison for two decades to horror that prosecutors had offered him a plea deal that did not include murder charges in the Yeskie deaths. One resident said he felt sorry for Baye.
But nearly to a person, those interviewed used this word to describe their reaction: “relief.”
“I think it’s a sigh of relief for the community,” John Valente said while working in the garden of his home at 110 Williams St. “I’m happy it’s over and glad he pleaded guilty.”
He said his wife, Bernadette, was the niece of Paul Yeskie Sr. He hopes Baye’s admission of guilt will help with healing, “for everyone — including him.”
Brian Donovan paused while doing yard work at his 42 Williams St. home, pointing to the spot where two vehicles were destroyed by fire Dec. 27, 2009. “I’ll never forget that night,” he said. “My wife woke me up, saying, ‘Brian, there’s a fire,’ so I ran downstairs and into the street just when the police pulled up.”
With a jail term awaiting Baye, Donovan said he finally feels “the neighborhood is safe” again.
He said he understands, and supports, the decision to come to a plea agreement.
“Finding him guilty was going to be a long, hard road, and I don’t know if they had a lot of hard evidence,” Donovan said of the prosecution’s case. “My wife and I were talking about it the other day. I said, ‘I don’t know what I would do if he got off and I saw him on the street.’ ”
And as a former corrections officer at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, he noted that while there is disappointment that murder charges were downgraded to manslaughter, 20 years in state prison recommended by the prosecution is a lengthy sentence.
“A lot of people might be angry that they let him plead to a lesser crime, but you have to ask yourself, would you want to do 20 years?” Donovan said. “That’s a long time in state prison.”
He said his first thought upon learning of Baye’s decision was to wonder why he changed his plea. He wondered if the emotional testimony Friday by Elaine Yeskie, the widow and mother of the fire victims, had anything to do with it.
“What was the breaking point?” Donovan wondered.
Others, like Van Epps, said they are relieved because they had harbored serious doubts that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict Baye. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in May 2012 that one of the most compelling pieces of evidence, a confession Baye gave to police days after the Dec. 27 fires, could not be used in court because police were overzealous in their interrogation.
“I’m so relieved because I have two young children and was concerned that he would be let go,” said Kara Wade of 47 Union St. She said she could not imagine raising her 5- and 8-year-old children in the same neighborhood as Baye if he had been found not guilty and moved back to his Hawley Street home.
“He’s going to jail, and that’s much better than risking it and going forward and then having there be no action against him,” she said.
Wade said she is satisfied that Baye also admitted to the fires in 2007, which Judge Constance Sweeney had severed from the trial during a pretrial hearing, ruling there was not enough evidence to link them to the 2009 fires.
“That helps us feel better in knowing that there aren’t other arsonists out there,” said Wade. “We know it was him.”
While walking on Williams Street, Matt Peterson of 2 Belanger Place said he thought it seemed appropriate that the state reduced murder to manslaughter charges. “I think he definitely intended to set the fires, but I don’t think he meant to kill anybody,” he said.
Peterson also said he thought the prosecution was wise to offer the plea deal, in part because, “I’d hate to see him get off on a technicality.”
Longtime resident Gerald Budgar, president of the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association, said he took comfort that Baye finally accepted responsibility for his crimes.
“We know this person admitted this and is off the streets for now. That’s the good part,” said Budgar of 127 Bridge St.
Another concern, he said, is whether “the sentence is appropriate for the terror that was caused for our neighborhood.”
Budgar pointed out that many neighborhood residents plan to attend the sentencing Wednesday, although he will not be among them.
“I’m just glad that it’s over,” said Budgar. “I really don’t want to relive it.”
Budgar also said that many people are curious about what caused Baye to change his plea during the trial, and that they are hoping for more answers in the next few days.
“I think the people of Ward 3 ought to know,” he said. “We’re the ones who suffered the terror and agony that happened here and I would like to know what happened in court.”
Meanwhile, Colleen Clark of 86 Williams St. said she was unhappy with the plea deal. Standing on her porch, Clark’s voice wavered with emotion as she lamented the lives lost. “It should be murder, not manslaughter,” she said. “What about the deaths? Why was there a plea deal? How could they do that? How is that right?”
Sandra Milo of 47 Holyoke St. was walking on Hawley Street not far from Baye’s former home on Monday afternoon. She said she and a co-worker were just discussing the news about Baye’s plea. “This is something for the families of the people who died, so that’s good,” she said. Her partner worked with the younger Yeskie at the Florence Casket Co. until his death.
“It was heartbreaking, losing him,” she said. “It’s been a struggle.”
Geoffrey Hickin of 47 Pomeroy Terrace said that he moved to the area just a month or two after Baye was arrested in January 2010.
“I really don’t know what to make of it. It’s a sad thing for the town,” Hickin said while walking to the post office. “I feel sorry for the guy ... If the fellow had problems, he should have been able to address them earlier.”
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.