David Terry would give the shirt off his back to help his friends and family.
Attached at his hip was 5-year-old Sa’fyre, the 32-year-old man’s eldest daughter — the light of his life ever since he lost his first child just minutes after she was born. Terry’s 3-year-old daughter Layah was smart for her age, able to recite the alphabet when she was just 18 months old.
His 2-year-old son Michael was a ball of energy, an attribute that garnered him the nickname “the little Energizer Bunny.” And while 11-month-old Donavan Duell was not related to Terry by blood, he loved him like one of his own.
The lives of Terry and four of his children ended in a fire that was deliberately set at his second-floor apartment at 438 Hulett St. on May 2. Sa’fyre was the only one of the five to survive, suffering burns on three-quarters of her small body.
Liz Dolder, Terry’s sister by adoption, struggles daily in dealing with the deaths. But her grief and pain remains acute, especially because the individual who set the fire remains free.
“There’s a monster getting away with this,” Dolder said Wednesday evening, standing in the cold on the vacant, snow-covered lot where her brother’s apartment once stood. “Our streets aren’t safe. Our kids aren’t safe.”
Just five days earlier, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albany declined to prosecute a Saratoga Springs man initially charged with setting the fire. Robert A. Butler, 27, was released from custody Friday after prosecutors declined to pursue charges against him.
Now Dolder and other family members are imploring anyone who might have witnessed something on the night of the fire to come forward. Speaking Wednesday at a vigil of more than 50 supporters gathered on the lot, she said she believes there are people who have the information authorities need to apprehend and convict the arsonist who killed her brother.
“Somebody out there knows the truth,” she said. “Somebody has a tidbit of information that needs to come forward.”
Officials with the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives are also trying to coax information, offering up to $10,000 for information related to the blaze that leads to a conviction. Schenectady police and the county’s Arson Task Force are offering an additional $1,500 and $500 in rewards, respectively.
“This senseless and horrific act resulted in the deaths of four people, of which three were young, innocent children,” said Thomas Cannon, a special agent from the ATF’s New York Field Division. “We are asking the public to provide any information that would lead investigators to those responsible for this heinous act of violence. The victims deserve nothing less.”
Butler was initially accused of setting the fire because Terry kicked him out of the house. The original criminal complaint accused him of taking a drug-fueled trip to Schenectady with friends, where they purchased gasoline that was used to light the staircase of the home on fire.
Butler spent nine months in jail after being accused of arson — a charge that could have brought him the death penalty in federal court. But his attorneys say “photographic and documentary” evidence helped them get the charge against him dropped.
Federal prosecutors haven’t indicated what led to the charges being dropped. They indicated the gravity of the crime and the potential punishments coupled with the “unusual and complex facts” necessitated further investigation.
The case against Butler was dismissed without prejudice, meaning prosecutors can still pursue charges against him. Dolder declined to discuss her knowledge of the situation, fearing it could jeopardize the case as police and federal agents sort through the convoluted information they’ve been given.
“There is a whole lot of lies, deceit and manipulation going on and they have to sift through it,” she said.
Dolder said she also wanted to calm some of the outrage roiling after Butler’s release. She said social media exploded with fury from Terry’s supporters, anger that she feared could lead to street justice. She wouldn’t offer an opinion on Butler, saying only that she wants the arsonist caught and convicted.
“The last thing my family wants is street justice,” she said. “We want this [person] to rot in prison for the rest of his life.”
Sa’fyre has now spent 286 days in the hospital contending with her injuries and is only now walking again. Florence Armour, Terry’s biological sister, said the family won’t remain quiet until the girl and her deceased family get justice.
“We’ll keep fighting until we get what we want,” she said. “We want justice for those guys. We want justice for Sa’fyre.”