Death in fire called a homicide

A December fire on Park Street that killed 39-year-old Debra Morris was deliberately set and Morris’
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A December fire on Park Street that killed 39-year-old Debra Morris was deliberately set and Morris’ death is a homicide, Fulton County District Attorney Louise K. Sira said Wednesday.

Sira, flanked by numerous local and state investigators at an afternoon news conference, declared the landlord, Jeffrey E. Alnutt, who was residing in the downstairs apartment that night, a person of interest in the investigation. She said the fire started in that apartment and was incendiary in nature. She declined to elaborate on what caused the fire and she urged anyone with information about the fire to contact police or her office.

Morris and her boyfriend, Gary Romaine Jr., rented the upstairs apartment. When the fire started shortly before midnight Dec. 21 the couple escaped but then Morris returned to rescue a cat, officials said. Her body was found on the second floor and an autopsy determined she died from smoke inhalation.

Sira said a number of agencies are now involved in the investigation, which will also focus on 2002 and 2004 fires that occurred at apartment houses owned by Alnutt.

Alnutt has refused to cooperate with police, Sira said.

His attorney, Robert Abdella of Gloversville, disputes that.

Abdella said Alnutt was planning to — and still desires to — cooperate. But when police began treating him as a suspect the night of the blaze, Abdella said, he advised his client to refrain from answering further questions.

As a result, Abdella said, the authorities and the public should not draw any inferences because Alnutt is not talking to police.

“I’m the one preventing him,” Abdella said.

“Hopefully, when everything’s sorted out this ‘person of interest’ label will go away,” Abdella said.

Abdella pointed out that Alnutt was never accused of anything in regard to any prior fires.

Sira said the prior fires include a 2002 blaze on Hoffman Street in Johnstown and a 2004 fire on Steele Avenue in Gloversville.

She declined to say whether those fires were considered suspicious.

In January 2004, Alnutt was the landlord and his daughter the tenant at the Steele Avenue building when cooking oil left heating on a stove burst into flames and spread to the structure. When firefighters arrived flames were visible on both floors, officials said at the time. Details of the 2002 Hoffman Street fire were unavailable Wednesday.

After the Steele Avenue fire, Alnutt’s insurance company denied coverage and filed suit to recover $258,500 in losses.

Details of the status of that case could not be obtained Wednesday.

Records kept on file in the Fulton County Hall of records show Alnutt owns nine properties in the Gloversville-Johnstown area and that a number are targets of foreclosure actions.

When firefighters arrived at the Park Street house last month, Sira said, the house was fully involved in flames and the door to the first floor apartment was locked. She said Alnutt sometimes lived there with his girlfriend and tenant, Amber Slaybaugh. She said Alnutt was there the night of the fire.

Categories: Schenectady County

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