Move Reignites Debate on Charges in Fatal Warehouse Blaze
The legal and psychological embers of a 1999 warehouse fire that killed six firefighters continue to smolder here, with the district attorney appealing the dismissal of manslaughter charges against a homeless couple accused of causing the blaze.
A brief filed late Tuesday by Dist. Atty. John J. Conte’s office contends that Superior Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman erred in concluding that Thomas S. Levesque and Julie Ann Barnes were merely negligent--and not willful--in first starting the fire and then failing to report it.
“It is fair to infer that the defendants consciously, rather than accidentally,” left the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. without reporting the fire, which began when the two knocked over a candle during an argument, the appeal states.
Levesque and Barnes had been living in the abandoned, five-story warehouse.
Firefighters who entered the blazing structure in search of the homeless pair became disoriented. Two firefighters were burned to death. Four others died of smoke inhalation.
Their memorial service was attended by President Clinton and attracted 11,000 firefighters from around the world.
The district attorney’s brief points out that Levesque and Barnes failed to use their cell phone to report the five-alarm blaze on Dec. 3, 1999.
The pair walked by a number of open businesses before stopping at a video game center in a downtown mall.
Barnes and Levesque were indicted in February 2000 on six charges each of involuntary manslaughter. Hillman’s Sept. 20 decision vacated those charges.
Documents filed Tuesday by the district attorney say the judge “usurped the grand jury’s function.”
The prosecution brief also concludes that Hillman was wrong to rule that Levesque and Barnes had no duty to act.
“Massachusetts courts have not found a duty to report or extinguish a fire where defendants’ failure to do so was merely negligent,” the judge wrote.
“Despite the tragic results, the conduct of these defendants did not rise to the level of wanton and reckless behavior.”
That standard was established in a court decision following the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in which 492 people died.
Michael C. Wilcox, a lawyer for Barnes, said Wednesday that the district attorney’s action reopens a wound that never fully healed in this industrial city west of Boston.
In addition to dealing with the loss of six firefighters, Wilcox observed, residents here were forced by the warehouse fire to confront the normally faceless problem of homelessness.
“In the vacuum that surrounded this terrible tragedy, it became clear that nobody knew anything about these two defendants,” he said.
“Until I represented Julie, I could walk by someone like her without even seeing her.”
Of his client and her co-defendant, Wilcox said: “They are the most unfortunate people I have ever met. As that became clearer to people here, they had trouble coming to grips with the idea that we should be trying to punish these people.”
Wilcox praised the content of the district attorney’s appeal, but vowed to fight back before a three-judge panel in the state Appeals Court.
Calls to the district attorney’s office were not returned.
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