Trial starts in Amherst arson case 

@mjmajchrowicz
Published: 3/17/2016 7:46:08 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As the thick smoke consumed his room, Mark A. Andre wrapped himself snugly in blankets and waited for the flames to envelop the bed where he lay.

That was the account that Andre, 55, told police after he allegedly started the Nov. 29, 2014 blaze at 222 Belchertown Road in Amherst — a building he shared with at least 10 other residents, according to testimony Thursday in Hampshire Superior Court.

Police arrested Andre on Dec. 6 after he told authorities he intentionally started the fire in an attempt to take his own life, according to court testimony. He pleaded not guilty to an arson charge and his trial began Thursday.

No injuries were reported in the fire, although the building’s tenants were temporarily displaced, police said.

Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Matthew Thomas said in court that, while he acknowledges the act was an apparent suicide attempt, he intends to prove that the fire was started in malice.

Andre’s defense attorney, Korrina Burnham of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, told Judge Mary-Lou Rup that evidence and testimony to be presented in court will show that Andre has long suffered from mental illness and that contributed to his setting the fire.

Richard Stigalt, a tenant who testified he visited with Andre daily leading up to the fire, said Andre had just been served an eviction notice and been dumped by his girlfriend.

Stigalt testified that Andre barely acknowledged him the last time they encountered each other the day of the fire after he asked how Andre was doing.

“He looked at me and just didn’t seem to care and just kept going,” Stigalt testified.

Then sometime before 6 p.m. Nov. 29, Stigalt testified that he saw smoke seeping into his first-floor room from the floor above his where Andre had an apartment.

Audio recordings of police interviewing Andre were played in court Thursday and provided a glimpse into what was happening inside his apartment as other tenants fled the building.

Police said Andre started the fire by igniting a wicker chair and allowing the flames to spread.

Andre told police he never meant for the fire to grow. It was his hope that he would breathe in the toxic fumes as the smoke enveloped the room, he said in the police interview.

As the fire began to spread, he told police, “It was cartoonish almost.”

“I had my blankets wrapped around me. They were urine-soaked,” he said in the interview. “I thought ‘this is how it’s gonna happen.’”

But at some point, Andre — barefoot and donning a red pajama onesie — left the building and started walking down the street, police said.

Amherst Police Officer Dominick Corsetti testified he saw Andre walking quickly away from the fire.

“It just struck me as odd,” Corsetti said in court. “Because, something like that, people tend to gather, not walk away.”

Though he was not arrested at this point, Andre was picked up on the street and questioned as he sat in a police cruiser.

“Are you OK?” Amherst Sgt. Richard MacLean said to Andre in the interview played in court.

“I’m very upset,” Andre replied.

“Do you feel like hurting yourself, Mark?”

“I’ve wanted to die since I was 7,” Andre said.

After MacLean learned about Andre allegedly leaving the building without saying anything to neighbors, he pressed him even further.

“Why didn’t you say ‘Hey, guys, call the cops, call the fire department?” MacLean asked.

“Maybe because I’m crazy,” Andre told him.

The trial will continue after the attorneys are able to coordinate availability for the remaining witnesses, but no date was set as of Thursday.

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com.

 

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to clarify the date of the fire as having occurred in 2014.




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