Last modified: Friday, May 17, 2013

SPRINGFIELD — Nearly 3½ years after his arrest and on day three of his long-awaited arson and murder trial, Anthony Baye took the witness stand Monday, admitting publicly for the first time that he set dozens of fires in Northampton in 2007 and 2009, including one that killed two city men.

In a dramatic turn of events Monday, Baye, 28, pleaded guilty to multiple counts of arson from Dec. 27, 2009, two counts of manslaughter stemming from the deaths of Paul Yeskie Sr., 81, and Paul Yeskie Jr., 39, in their Fair Street home that night, as well as two other sets of fires in the Hawley Street neighborhood, not far from where Baye grew up.

At the change of plea hearing, Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney went through a list of the charges against Baye, grouping them together around specific fires, and asking Baye each time: “Did you in fact set that fire as the district attorney said you did?” Each time Baye calmly and matter-of-factly answered with one word: “Yes.”

In so doing, Baye pleaded guilty to 48 counts of arson and related charges in connection to the fires Dec. 27, 2009, that killed the Yeskies and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage in Northampton — as well as other fires that troubled Ward 3 residents in 2009 and in 2007.

“The city of Northampton can sleep well tonight,” Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said following the plea hearing. “The community is safer now.”

Sweeney set sentencing for Wednesday morning in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton.

The plea came as the second day of witness testimony was set to begin in Hampden Superior Court in Springfield. Instead of bringing jurors in for the trial, the prosecutors and defense attorneys informed Sweeney they had negotiated a plea deal in which the Northwestern district attorney’s office reduced the two murder counts to manslaughter and Baye admitted to setting all the fires.

Later, Sullivan said getting Baye to admit to setting the earlier sets of fires had been a “demand” by his office in order to entertain a plea agreement.

The 2007 fires and those set between January and November of 2009 were severed from the Dec. 27, 2009, fires during hearings leading up to trial.

At the plea hearing, special prosecutor Brett Vottero and defense attorneys David Hoose and Thomas Lesser offered a jointly recommended sentence for Baye of 19 to 20 years in state prison followed by 15 years of probation.

Sweeney will take up the matter at the sentencing hearing Wednesday.

Although not the life sentence that Baye could have received if found guilty on the murder charges or armed burglary charges resulting from entering property where he set fires, Sullivan later said the conviction still carries a significant prison sentence.

“Justice was achieved in this case,” Sullivan said. “Today we had the opportunity to finally hold Anthony Baye accountable.”

Sullivan said Baye’s plea clears up all of the suspicious fires over the years around the Ward 3 neighborhood in Northampton.

“We built a great case,” Sullivan said. “The defense obviously saw that it was a strong case.”

In his opening statement last Thursday, Vottero told jurors that there was no physical evidence nor eyewitness testimony directly connecting Baye to any of the fires he was charged with setting. However, he told jurors that evidence from portions of Baye’s own police interviews would link him to the crimes.

Outside the courtroom after the plea hearing, Lesser declined comment until after Baye’s sentencing on Wednesday.

Victims on hand for plea

Witnesses who had already testified last week, including Elaine Yeskie, widow and mother of the two men killed on Fair Street, were in the courtroom Monday, as were others who had been expected to testify Monday.

One of those witnesses, Stephen Guy, whose house on Crescent Street was damaged in one of the fires Baye admitted to setting, said he felt sorry for both the Yeskie and Baye families. He added that people in his neighborhood would be able to “take a deep breath and breathe a sigh of relief,” now that the case was resolved.

Guy said he was not aware until after he arrived at court Monday that a plea deal was in the works.

He said he felt confident the state had the correct suspect in Baye, but was glad the matter went to trial to let the evidence determine that for sure.

“I’ve always believed ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ ” Guy said.

After the plea, Sweeney thanked the jurors for their service, explained the turn of events and sent them home.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.




 


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