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Worcester Telegram & Gazette (MA)
December 19, 1996
Author: George Snell; Telegram & Gazette Staff
LEOMINSTER – A trembling Christopher French, who police say torched the apartment building where he lives, broke down in tears at his arraignment yesterday. As a court officer escorted him from the courtroom, French threw his wife a fleeting, tearful glance. He let out a whimper as the door closed behind him.
French, 28, of 100 Third St., Apt. 5, pleaded not guilty to a single charge of burning a dwelling or house. Judge John J. Curran Jr. set his bail at $5,000. The three-alarm fire on Saturday destroyed an apartment house at 100 Third St. and 199 Water St. The building has two addresses because it sits on a corner lot and has two entrances. The fire left 25 people without a home. French, who takes medication for depression and anxiety, was unable to speak when first questioned by the judge. Curran stopped the arraignment to allow court psychiatrist Paul Bail to interview French.
When the arraignment reconvened an hour later, Bail told the judge French understood the charge against him, but was “quite anxious and nervous.” He said French attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and sees a therapist.
“There are no exceptional problems,” Bail said. “He is receiving the care he needs. He is not a risk to himself or to others.” Police Lt. Francis J. Ptak asked the court to set bail at $10,000, despite the department’s having released French on $25 bail hours after his arrest. French was taken into custody Monday after a two-day investigation by the state fire marshal’s office.
Curran expressed annoyance at the police for releasing French before his arraignment. “It troubles me that he was released, since this is a serious charge and he has a history of violence,” Curran said. French has outstanding warrants from Fitchburg District Court for domestic assault on his wife.
Joseph Moriarty, French’s court-appointed lawyer, said French appeared at his arraignment and should be allowed to remain free. “He has no reason not to show up and put this behind him,” Moriarty said. Moriarty said French accidentally started the fire when he tossed a match used to light a cigarette onto a third-floor porch. The match ignited a pile of trash. However, according to court documents, state Trooper Robert F. O’Keefe wrote that “no evidence was found which supports an accidental ignition.”
SEEN LEAVING PORCH
O’Keefe, who is assigned to the fire marshal’s office, wrote in his report that French was seen by another resident leaving the porch at 4:45 p.m. Saturday, shortly before the fire started. French lived in a third-floor apartment. French later told police he was not in the building at the time of the fire, but was out shopping and visiting relatives. However, French later recanted and told police he set the fire by accident, according to documents.
Moriarty said French, who is separated from his wife, has lived with his mother in Fitchburg since being burned out of his apartment. Terri Pixler, executive director of the North Central Massachusetts Red Cross chapter, said the 24 other residents are staying with friends or relatives.
“Once they find a new place to live, we’ll provide them with essential household items,” Pixler said. “A few of the families have already gotten leads on apartments from the Salvation Army.”
Record Number: 9612198379
Copyright (c) 1996 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.