25-year-old Mass. man pleads not guilty to setting fire that killed 2 of his neighbors

By Stephen Singer, AP
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Man pleads not guilty to setting deadly Mass. fire

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — A 25-year-old man accused of setting a fire at a home that killed two of his neighbors pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Tuesday and was ordered held without bail. The deadly blaze was one of 15 fires set within 75 minutes of one another in the community.

Anthony P. Baye was arrested late Monday and charged with two counts of murder, arson and armed burglary in Northampton District Court. He has not been charged with the other fires, but District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said she anticipates bringing more charges.

He was caught on surveillance video in the area the night of the Dec. 27 fire, showing his alibi that he was visiting his girlfriend was a lie, prosecutors said in court. He had been a suspect from the beginning of the investigation, prosecutors said.

Scheibel said outside court that she would not divulge a motive for the fires other than to say “it appears to have been a random spree.” She would not say whether police suspected anyone else may have been involved.

Baye’s public defender, Alan Rubin, declined to comment after the hearing. A woman who answered the phone at the Baye home Tuesday also declined to comment.

Court documents said Baye worked at the Sierra Grille, a popular city restaurant. A sign on the restaurant’s door said it was closed until Jan. 8, but the closing was apparently unrelated to the fires or the arrest.

Ben Lombardi, 29, a neighbor of Baye’s who had also worked with him in past at Sierra Grille, was shocked to learn of the arrest.

“When I heard the name, I was blown away,” Lombardi said. “He’s a good kid and it’s a bit sad to see his name dropped in the papers.”

The early morning blaze killed two of Baye’s neighbors: Paul Yeskie Sr., 81, and his son Paul Yeskie Jr., 39. They died of asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation and “thermal injuries,” the medical examiner said, ruling their deaths homicides. Scheibel said Baye entered their front porch through a closed but unlocked door with a lighter. She did not say whether Baye knew the Yeskies.

The elder Yeskie was a lifelong Northampton resident who served in the U.S. Army during World War II and worked as bricklayer and mason, according to an obituary in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

The blaze at the Yeskies home was one of 15 structure and vehicle fires in the same neighborhood set within 75 minutes of one another that put the city of about 30,000 people on edge. Investigators originally said there were nine fires, but Scheibel said Tuesday that there were 15 related fires.

Northampton, about 100 miles west of Boston, is home to Smith College, a prestigious women’s liberal arts college, and has a thriving artists’ community.

Mayor Claire Higgins said she was disappointed but not surprised to learn that the accused was a resident of her city.

“I knew it was as likely as not that it was someone from the community. It’s easier to think harm was inflicted from outside, that did not happen here,” said Higgins.

If convicted of the murders, Baye could face a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Authorities were still investigating a possible connection to a series of unsolved fires dating back 3-4 years in the city, Scheibel said.

Investigators received some 300 tips since the fire, and some of the information was “critical” to solving the case, she said.

Residents packed community meetings attended by the mayor to discuss ways to prevent more fires. Community groups offered rewards for information leading to an arrest. Scheibel called in state and federal investigators to help the local fire department, and Gov. Deval Patrick interrupted his Christmas vacation to reassure the city.

The arrest was good news to the Ward 3 neighborhood, which has been plagued by suspicious fires for about three years, said Gerald Budgar, president of the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association.

“First, I think there is a great sense of relief, and second, a sense of appreciation for the hard work of all the law enforcement agencies involved in this,” he said.

There had been widespread speculation that the arsonist was from the neighborhood because of an apparent familiarity with its layout, he said. But that hasn’t made people any more angry, said Budgar, who took dozens of calls Tuesday morning from neighbors.

“People are just angry period, no matter who did it,” he said.

He said the Baye family has lived in the neighborhood for years, although he did not personally know them.

“The ward will sleep better tonight,” he said.

Associated Press Writer Mark Pratt in Boston contributed to this story.

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