A restaurant employee was charged with starting a fire that killed two of his neighbors _ one of 15 apparently random blazes that were set within a 75-minute period, terrorizing residents of this western Massachusetts college town.
Anthony P. Baye, 25, was arrested late Monday on two counts of murder and one count each of arson and armed burglary, and was ordered held without bail following his arraignment Tuesday. If convicted, he could face life in prison with no chance for parole.
Baye was caught on surveillance video in the area on the night of the Dec. 27 fire, which contradicted his alibi that he was visiting his girlfriend, prosecutors said in Northampton District Court.
The blaze killed Paul Yeskie Sr., 81, and his son Paul Yeskie Jr., 39. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said Baye entered their front porch through an unlocked door with a lighter. She did not say whether Baye knew the Yeskies.
Baye's public defender, Alan Rubin, declined to comment after his client entered a not guilty plea. A woman who answered the phone at the Baye home also declined to comment.
Baye was not charged with the other fires, but Scheibel said she anticipated bringing more charges.
The district attorney would not divulge a motive for the fires other than to say "it appears to have been a random spree." She would not say whether investigators suspected anyone else of involvement.
Court documents said Baye worked at the Sierra Grille, a popular city restaurant. A sign on the restaurant's door said it was closed until Jan. 8, but the closing was apparently unrelated to the fires or the arrest.
Ben Lombardi, 29, a neighbor of Baye's who had also worked with him in the past at Sierra Grille, was shocked to learn of the arrest.
"When I heard the name, I was blown away," Lombardi said. "He's a good kid and it's a bit sad to see his name dropped in the papers."
Northampton, a city of some 30,000 residents, had been left reeling by the blazes. Four homes, one garage and 10 cars were torched in the early-morning hours two days after Christmas.
The arrest brought some sense of relief.
"I'm happy they arrested someone and did it quickly," said Chris Jasinski, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts who grew up in Northampton and lives two doors down from the Yeskies' home.
"I feel safer. I just hope there is going to be justice for this," he said.
In the wake of the fires, residents packed community meetings and community groups offered rewards for information leading to an arrest. State and federal investigators were called in to help with the investigation and Gov. Deval Patrick interrupted his Christmas vacation to reassure the city.
Hundreds of tips poured in and Scheibel said they were helpful to the investigation.
Gerald Budgar, president of the Ward 3 neighborhood, said there had been widespread speculation that that the arsonist was from the neighborhood because of an apparent familiarity with its layout.
"The ward will sleep better tonight," said Budgar, who did not personally know Baye or his family.
Julie Robbins said she and her husband left New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and settled in Northampton, seeking a safer and quieter life.
On Dec. 27, at 2:30 a.m., she was awakened by police and firefighters pounding on her door, alerting her that her car was on fire and the flames were threatening her home.
"It was the most frightening thing," she said.
Robbins came to Baye's arraignment on Tuesday to see if she might recognize the accused arsonist, but she did not.
At the site where the Yeskies' home had stood, a backhoe was clearing away the remaining debris Tuesday from the fire that destroyed the house.
The elder Yeskie was a lifelong Northampton resident who served in the U.S. Army during World War II and worked as a bricklayer and mason, according to an obituary in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Yeskie's wife, Elaine, escaped the blaze and was in the courtroom for Tuesday's arraignment. She has been living at a local motel since the fire.
Northampton, about 100 miles west of Boston, is home to Smith College, a prestigious women's liberal arts college, and has a thriving artists' community. The nation's 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, retired to the city after his presidency and died there in 1933.
Mayor Clare Higgins said she was disappointed but not surprised to learn that the accused was a city resident.
"I knew it was as likely as not that it was someone from the community. It's easier to think harm was inflicted from outside, that did not happen here," said Higgins.
(This version CORRECTS spelling of mayor's first name to Clare, instead of Claire.)