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'For more than two years, an entire neighborhood lived in fear'

  • Naomi Cairns listens to the Yeskie families victim statement at the sentencing of Anthony Baye Wednesday morning in Northampton.
  • Anthony Baye at his  sentencing  Wednesday morning in Northampton.
  • Anthony Baye enters the court room at his  sentencing  Wednesday morning in Northampton.

In those awful days following the fires set Dec. 27, 2009, people set up beds for themselves on living room couches to stand guard against an unknown arsonist.

Less than 12 hours after the first fire ignited with the flick of a cigarette lighter, while an overpowering smell of charred wood still hung heavily over the eastern fringe of the city, Gov. Deval Patrick, state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan, then-Mayor Clare Higgins and other local police and fire brass gathered with reporters in the fire station truck bay. In neighborhoods a short walk from the city’s downtown, people walked around in disbelief and shock at the enormity of the destruction on 10 streets in a matter of 75 minutes.

Higgins, Coan and other officials urged vigilance, warned people to “stay safe,” but also said people should not panic.

But that didn’t mean people remained calm. Paul Yeskie Sr., 81, and son Paul Yeskie Jr., 39, men who shared a birthday and now a death day, died in the fire at 17 Fair St. In addition to grief over two lost lives, and shock at the sheer number of deliberately set fires, there was plenty of fear.

The fear was plenty justified. After increasing concern over seemingly random arson fires around Hawley, Hancock and Williams streets and Eastern Avenue over the previous three years, a neighborhood’s worst fears had come to pass when homes were destroyed and people perished. And that arsonist was still out there somewhere. It would be a week before police made an arrest in the case, and another three years before that arsonist admitted his deeds.

In Hampshire Superior Court Wednesday, Anthony Baye, 28, the arsonist who set those fires, was sentenced to 19 to 20 years in state prison, a resolution police investigators, prosecutors and the lawyers defending Baye all agreed was an appropriate and just resolution.

More than one public official during Wednesday’s court proceeding and the press conference that followed talked about how the fires Baye set had affected an entire city.

“In this particular case, more than any case I’ve been involved in, the entire community was a victim,” said Brett Vottero, a special prosecutor named by Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan to prosecute the Baye case. “For more than two years, an entire neighborhood lived in fear.”

Northampton Fire Chief Brian Duggan, who was among the first responders at the Yeskie house fire, noted that in the days after the fires, his department took actions they’d never before taken, literally going door-to-door to talk with city residents “to deal with the fear that became palpable.”

“Today’s sentencing closes a very dark chapter in the history of Northampton,” said Mayor David J. Narkewicz. “The entire city of Northampton was a victim, not only from the terror spree that occurred on Dec. 27, 2009, but the years preceding that, and the years up to today.”

Indeed, the judge herself said what crystallized for her during the trial was just how much the entire city had been a victim in Baye’s crime spree, noting that a fire setter who was both a serial arsonist and a spree arsonist is a highly unusual combination, as one expert witness testified.

“While the community was a victim, the community was also its own best protector,” Judge Constance Sweeney said. “Neighbors helped neighbors, neighbors reached out to neighbors and they did so while, for all intents and purposes, their neighborhood was under attack.”

A crowded courtroom

Baye’s sentencing hearing took place in a high-ceilinged courtroom with a chandelier, 10 tall windows, and ornate woodwork that signifies something old and grand, the kind of courtroom rarely built nowadays. Prosecutors asked to hold the sentencing there to accommodate the crowd they expected.

Among the approximately 120 people in the room were dozens from the ranks of the Northampton police and fire departments — many of whom had been awakened in the night and called to duty on Dec. 27, 2009. Also present were victims of the more than two dozen fires Baye set over a span of years, state and local fire-fighting brass, members of the Yeskie family, and Anthony Baye’s parents, Peter and Debra Baye.

In brief statements to Sweeney, several victims described the trauma of the fires, the enormity of the losses and the toll taken on their lives.

Naomi Cairns, who lost everything she owned when her apartment at 67 Hawley St. burned in 2007 in a fire Baye set, was revictimized in another fire he set on her porch at 10 Highland Ave. on Dec. 27, 2009.

“I believed that someone was trying to kill me,” Cairns told Sweeney with a voice shaking slightly. Cairns said she began sleeping on the couch, with a fire ladder and fire extinguisher next to her.

“Most hurtful is that someone in my community — Anthony Baye, my neighbor — would commit these senseless acts,” she said.

Some victims, including Cairns, said it was a crucial step in their quest to move on to see Baye take responsibility for his actions.

Speaking directly to Baye as she concluded her statement, Cairns said, “Anthony, I want an apology.”

But also among the victim statements was no small amount of compassion for Baye.

Vottero read a statement from Laura Seftel, whose former home on Union Street was destroyed that night and whose husband and teenage son fled the flames “into the December night with no coats on and no shoes on their feet.”

“I hope some day Anthony Baye finds the psychological help he needs, but for now, we’ll sleep better knowing he can’t hurt us or anyone for a long time,” Vottero read from Seftel’s statement.

Laura’s son, Henry Seftel-Siegel, 15 at the time of the fire, in a statement also read by Vottero, described how the fire upended his life and made him realize all the things — “home-cooked meals, a backyard, pictures, a roof over my head” — he’d taken for granted.

But he wasn’t the only one who lost things that night, he noted, saying, “I offer my condolences to everyone affected by the fires.” He also offered his condolences to the family of Anthony Baye.

From her bench, Sweeney thanked the victims for speaking, and when Elaine Yeskie, aided by a walker and her granddaughter, made her way to the prosecutor’s table, the judge applauded her grace over the course of the “long ordeal.”

And then she invited Yeskie to tell her a little bit about her husband and son.

Her husband was a mason for many years, Yeskie said, he loved to garden, and was known for leaving piles of vegetables at neighbors’ doorsteps.

“There isn’t anything that Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. would not do for someone if they asked,” said Yeskie. “They showed their love every day.”

Sweeney pointed out that the way Paul Sr. reacted the night of the fire proved that very point. In earlier trial testimony, Yeskie had stated that as she went downstairs the night of the fire, her husband told her to get away and call 911.

“Even as your husband faced a terrible moment for himself, he called out to you to save you,” Sweeney said.

Later she told Yeskie: “The way you have conducted yourself since this terrible occasion is a role model for many, including myself.”

Change of guard

At a press conference after the sentencing, some of the same public safety officers who had gathered for the somber press conference in the city’s firehouse on Dec. 27, 2009, were on hand, though the mayor of the city and the district attorney had changed in the ensuing years.

“Today, we’re finally seeing justice served with this sentencing,” said Narkewicz, who replaced Higgins as mayor.

Sullivan, who replaced former Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, noted that police and firefighters responded that night in a way that he believes prevented the loss of more lives. The community rallied afterward to “recover from this era of arson,” Sullivan said. “This era of arson is over.”

“The measure of justice is really about how we as a community come together and work toward a just result,” he said.

He thanked Coan, the state fire marshal, for committing “all resources to this fire recovery.”

Meanwhile, Coan, present in 2009 and again on Wednesday, praised the teamwork of the 14 western Massachusetts fire departments that solidly backed up Northampton in its time of need, just as he had in 2009.

This time there was a big difference, though. They knew who set the fires and they knew where he would be for the foreseeable future.

“I’m pleased that a serial arsonist is off the streets and will be for many years,” Coan said.

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