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Man files lawsuit over fatal fire arrest

Man files lawsuit over fatal fire arrest

Lawsuit names Schenectady police detectives, federal agents
Man files lawsuit over fatal fire arrest
Robert Butler is escorted by police after his arrest in May 2013 on charges related to a deadly arson fire.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

A man who spent nine months in prison on charges related to a deadly Hulett Street fire in 2013 has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against federal agents and Schenectady police detectives.

Robert A. Butler, 31, was charged with starting a fire at 438 Hulett St. in Schenectady the morning of May 2, 2013, that killed four people and maimed another. 

Butler faced a possible death sentence if convicted but was freed after prosecutors dropped the charges, citing “information regarding the involvement of others.”

The fire killed David Terry, 32, and his children Layah, 3, Michael, 2, and Donavan Duell, 11 months. Safyre Terry, who was 5 at the time, survived but was badly burned. Safyre, now 9, is continuing her recovery.

Butler, of Saratoga Springs, was released from prison in February 2014, and four people have since been charged with perjury in connection with the investigation.

The arson remains unsolved, and a reward of up to $40,000 continues to be offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever started the fire.

The 24-page complaint, filed Dec. 28, 2016, accuses six law enforcement officers of deprivation of liberty, false arrest, malicious prosecution and other federal civil rights violations. The complaint names Schenectady detective Eric Hesch and retired detectives Paul Steele and Thomas Disbrow.

Mark Meeks, Mark Maher and Jason Stocklas, all agents with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are also named in the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Albany by attorney Raymond Gazer, of New York City.

The complaint alleges detectives and agents involved with the investigation arrested Butler based largely on false statements obtained from Butler’s friends.

“Throughout (Butler’s) time in custody and his ensuing incarceration, and despite an exhaustive — often oppressive — interrogation, (Butler) maintained his innocence,” the complaint states.

The complaint also alleges the officers linked Butler to the crime despite questionable evidence. For example, one investigator allegedly claimed to smell gasoline on Butler, but forensic tests later came up negative for the presence of the fuel on his clothing.

In another instance, the complaint claims, the officers connected Butler to threatening text messages sent to David Terry, though no such message was linked to any phone Butler owned or controlled.

In the nearly three years since Butler’s release, four others have been charged with perjury in connection with the fire. Bryan Fish, of Schenectady, and Richard Ramsey, of Saratoga Springs, were indicted in October.

Jennica Duell, Safyre’s mother, was sentenced in September to more than 11 years in federal prison for lying to investigators about the fire. Duell gave statements during the investigation that bolstered charges against Butler.

Edward Leon, who emerged as a suspect around the time of Butler’s release, was sentenced in March to consecutive five-year sentences on perjury charges.

“All these people that wavered — Duell, Fish, Leon, Ramsey — the only person whose story never changed was (Butler’s),” said Gazer, Butler’s attorney, on Wednesday. “He maintained his innocence.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, and Gazer acknowledged it will be a difficult case.

“It’s very easy for the government to say, ‘We believed credible witnesses, and they all lied.’ I think they’re going to fight this thing tooth and nail,” Gazer said. “Whatever happens, happens. But I think (Butler) just wants his day in court.”

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