With Tuesday’s filing of federal arson charges against the man accused of setting the fire last month that killed a father and three children came new details of how authorities believe he did it.
Chief among those details was that Robert A. Butler wasn’t alone, according to the filing. He was with three friends, and all four were under the influence of drugs.
As Butler set the fire, the complaint reads, the only note of protest from the three others for an act that would ultimately claim four lives, was a single audible “no.”
In a case that already has so many aspects that are difficult for anyone to fathom, that new detail is one of the hardest for the family of the victims.
“That’s even scarier,” Elizabeth Dolder, the sister of David Terry and aunt to the three children killed, said Wednesday. “There were three other people there, besides this monster, and they didn’t take the time to warn my brother, or stop [Butler] from doing this?”
Butler, 27, of Saratoga Springs, was formally charged federally Tuesday, making his initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Albany later that afternoon, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He faces one count of arson causing death, a charge that potentially carries the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Federal prosecutors said no decision has been made by the U.S. Department of Justice on whether they will seek the death penalty. That determination is ultimately made by the attorney general of the United States.
Butler is due back in federal court Monday for a detention hearing. He has been held since his arrest later on the day of the fire.
Killed in the May 2 fire at 438 Hulett St. was David Terry, 32; Layah Terry, 3; Michael Terry, 2; and 11-month-old Donavan Duell. A fourth child, 5-year-old Safyre Terry, a girl described as her father’s princess, suffered severe burns and remains under sedation in the burn unit at Westchester Medical Center. Family members have said she recently began breathing on her own.
Butler, according to the federal complaint, had been fuming for days over Terry throwing him out of the apartment. Terry lived there with the children, their mother, Jennica Duell, and two other men.
Terry threw Butler out over accusations Butler had hit Duell, according to the complaint.
There was an exchange or threats via text message, authorities say, then — as everyone in the house slept — Butler set fire to the apartment shortly before 4:30 a.m. May 2.
That the case was arson was a relatively quick determination, according to the complaint. More than a dozen investigators, including agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, looked at the scene and evidence. Everything pointed to an intentionally set fire.
The area of origin, analysis of physical debris and possible ignition sources all led investigators to conclude someone had started the blaze, applying an open heat source to gasoline placed in the stairwell leading to the second-floor apartment. Samples from that hallway were tested, confirming the presence of gasoline, according to the complaint.
And the person who authorities allege did it, according to the complaint, did it with three friends watching.
At least two of those onlookers first went with Butler’s cover story, that they were in Saratoga Springs at the time. The two then said Butler set the fire, according to the complaint.
Without detailing who he was referring to, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said Tuesday one of the benefits of federal prosecution were different rules regarding witness immunity.
No one but Butler has been charged in the case. Whether anyone else is ever charged, Dolder said those three people with Butler could have done something, should have done something.
“Their deaths are on their consciences, too,” Dolder said of Butler’s friends. “Because of their lack of action, that caused the death of my brother and his three children.”
Little Donavan, Dolder recalled, had just started walking, something the aunt never got to see.
“They had their whole entire lives ahead of them,” she said.
Family members have set up the Terry Family Fund to help cover expenses incurred as a result of the fire, including travel to see Safyre. Anyone wanting to donate can do so at any local SEFCU branch.