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What you need to know for 11/24/2017

Schenectady man accused of perjury in Hulett Street arson held pending trial

Schenectady man accused of perjury in Hulett Street arson held pending trial

A federal judge Monday ordered a Schenectady man accused of lying to a grand jury investigating the
Schenectady man accused of perjury in Hulett Street arson held pending trial
Schenectady firefighters battle a 2-alarm fatal fire at 438 Hulett Street Street after flames broke out shortly after 4 a.m. May 2, 2013.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

A federal judge Monday ordered a Schenectady man accused of lying to a grand jury investigating the 2013 Hulett Street arson fire that killed four people and maimed Safyre Terry be held pending trial.

Judge Christian Hummel made his ruling after hearing arguments from prosecutors and Bryan Fish’s attorney, finding, among other things, that Fish would be a danger to the community should he be released.

Prosecutors argued in favor of detention, calling Fish’s conduct “an affront to the integrity of our judicial system.”

Fish’s defense attorney, Frederick Rench, however, argued his client believed his account to the grand jury was true. And it matched what he told investigators during his initial interrogation after what Rench said was hours of pressure from them.

“The only affront to the criminal justice system,” Rench told Hummel, “is the prosecution of this man under these circumstances.”

Federal prosecutors Friday announced indictments against Fish, 22, of Schenectady, and another man, Richard Ramsey, 47, of Saratoga Springs.

Both are accused of lying about different aspects of the case -- lies that led to the initial jailing of Robert Butler on charges of starting the fire. Specifically, both men claimed Butler got a ride from Saratoga Springs to Schenectady the morning of the fire.

The men are the third and fourth people charged with lying to the grand jury about the events of that night. The others are Jennica Duell and Edward Leon.

Duell and Fish allegedly gave similar accounts to investigators: that they traveled with Butler to Schenectady the morning of May 2, 2013, and Butler started the Hulett Street apartment house on fire.

Duell, the mother of Safyre and the children killed in the fire, was charged with perjury in November 2014 and pleaded guilty inMay. She received more than 11 years in prison at her sentencing last month.

Fish’s grand jury testimony, given three weeks after the fire, accused a fourth person — his own brother, Robert Fish — of driving them to Schenectady the night of the fire. Robert Fish, however, had an alibi corroborated by three others, prosecutors said.

Bryan Fish then changed his account, saying only he, Duell and Butler traveled to Schenectady that night. The accusations of perjury against Fish are limited to claims about who drove them to the city, prosecutors confirmed in court Monday.

Duell’s and Fish’s alleged false statements to the grand jury bolstered charges against Butler. He was initially charged with setting the fire, but those charges were dropped after investigators determined witnesses lied to the grand jury.

Authorities have focused on Leon, of St. Johnsville, as the primary suspect in the arson, based on testimony in his perjury case. He has not been charged with setting the fire and denies setting it.

However, Leon is serving 10 years in prison after his own perjury conviction — for falsely testifying about his whereabouts the morning of the fire.

Ramsey is accused of lying about the Butler scenario by initially testifying he allowed Butler to borrow his car that night. Ramsey appeared in court Monday with his attorney, Lee Kindlon. He formally pleaded not guilty to the four perjury counts against him and is due back in court next week for his own detention hearing.

Prosecutors first indicted Duell and Leon in 2014, more than a year after the blaze at 438 Hulett St. that killed David Terry, 32, and his children, Layah, 3; Michael, 2; and Donavan Duell, 11 months. Safyre, found by firefighters in her father’s arms, suffered severe injuries and continues her recovery.

Safyre became the focus of a worldwide Christmas card project in December 2015 and has been in the care of her aunt, Liz Dolder — David Terry’s sister — since leaving the hospital.

Fish’s mother and girlfriend attended Monday’s hearing, becoming emotional as Hummel ordered Fish held.

In court, Rench cited the similarities between the Duell and Fish accounts, telling the court that police took both in for questioning the morning of the fire and separated them.

He suggested the common denominator between the two was the people who interrogated them.

After more than four hours of questioning, Rench said his client began to waiver and ultimately believed investigators’ assertions that he was at the scene when the fire was set.

Rench previously cited intoxication, but also possible coercion, fraud and deceit that resulted in a false account.

Prosecutor Grant Jaquith questioned Rench’s assertion that Fish believed the alleged perjury to be true.

Prosecutors also argued for detention, citing evidence of Fish’s guilt as overwhelming, pointing out that Fish faces up to 15 years if convicted, his history of substance abuse and Fish’s repeated testimony about being involved in the arson by being there.

But Rench countered that investigators could have determined Fish's testimony to be false before putting him in front of the grand jury to testify.

“If there was any fundamental police work whatsoever, they would have known before they put this man in the grand jury that this story was false,” Rench said.

Reach Gazette reporter Steven Cook at 395-3122, or @ByStevenCook on Twitter.

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