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Hearing focuses on fatal ’89 fire
By Casey Farrar Sentinel Staff | Posted: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 12:15 pm NEWPORT — A week-long pretrial hearing in the case of a man accused of setting a fire in Keene in 1989 that killed a family of four began Monday in Sullivan County Superior Court. Attorneys for the prosecution and defense spent the day arguing a handful of motions in 54-yearold David B. McLeod’s case, which is scheduled to go to trial in October. McLeod, who was arrested at his home in Sacramento, Calif., in June 2010, has been charged with four counts of murder in connection with the deaths of Carl R. Hina, 49, Lori M. Hina, 26, Lillian M. Hina, 4 months old, and 12-year-old Sara Jean, Carl Hina’s daughter from a previous marriage. They died in a fire at an apartment building at 88 High St. In court, McLeod sat next to his public defenders, Caroline L. Smith and Thomas A. Barnard, wearing a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants, his graying beard trimmed close. He took notes on a yellow legal pad throughout the day’s proceedings. The defense has asked for the case to be dismissed, arguing McLeod’s right to due process has been violated. Most of Monday’s hearing focused on that motion. The defense called two people, Wanda Ford and Edward Bussieres, to testify. McLeod and Ford were attending a party with several other people at Bussieres’ apartment on the first floor of 88 High St. the night the building burned. During nearly two hours of questioning, Smith asked Ford about several inconsistencies between what she told police the day of the Jan. 14, 1989, fire, a written statement she gave investigators five days later, and statements she made to investigators in 2010. According to transcripts read during the hearing, Ford told police in 1989 that she was with McLeod the whole night, first saying he didn’t leave the apartment all night and later saying he left once without her to go to the store for cigarettes and beer. In a 2010 statement and in court testimony Monday, she said she left the party with McLeod for a few beer runs to the store and McLeod left the party a couple of times without her for brief periods. Ford also testified Monday that Sandra Walker, a woman who lived in the apartment building and who is now dead, told her as the building was going up in flames that she’d fallen asleep with a cigarette in her hand, igniting the fire. “She climbed out of the window and she said, ‘Look what I’ve done. I started the fire with a cigarette,’ ” Ford testified.

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According to transcripts read in court of Ford’s 1989 interviews with police, she denied having a conversation with Walker. Ford also told police in 2010 that she saw McLeod and Walker doing cocaine on a fire escape sometime during the day before the fire, but she didn’t mentioned that in earlier interviews. In a cross examination, Senior Assistant Attorney General James T. Boffetti asked Ford if the changes in her story happened because she was blending memories from the night of the fire with memories from a Christmas party several weeks earlier, which McLeod and Bussieres also attended. Boffetti is prosecuting the case with Senior Assistant Attorney General Janice K. Rundles. “The only thing that I know for sure, is that I brought David to my apartment during both of those events due to confrontations between Ed (Bussieres) and David,” Ford said. Several times during her testimony, Ford said she was likely drunk when she was interviewed on the night of the fire, when she gave a written statement five days later and when she testified before a grand jury in 1989. She said she may also have lied to police about drug use that night among party-goers, including McLeod, in her early statements. “I didn’t intentionally lie to anybody,” she said. “I think I was covering to help my friends. “That’s what it sounds like to me.” Smith also focused her line of questioning for Bussieres on discrepancies between his 1989 and 2010 statements to police. His testimony continues today. Several times during his testimony Monday, Bussieres said he believed police reports and transcripts of his interviews in 1989 were incorrect, because they did not match his memory of the events the night of the fire. According to a transcript read in court of a 1989 police interview, Bussieres told police that while firefighters battled the flames in the building he stood with a group of people across the street and heard McLeod joking around and drunkenly mumbling,“Everything’s fine, everything’s fine.” But in a 2010 interview with investigators and in testimony Monday, Bussieres said he heard McLeod say, “Nice job I did, huh?”as he watched the flames. Smith also questioned Bussieres about his accounts of what he did after the fire was discovered. According to a transcript of a 1989 interview with police, Bussieres said he tried to go upstairs twice after the fire broke out, but never made it because of heavy smoke in the hallway.

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But in an interview in 2010 and during testimony Monday, Bussieres said he had reached the second floor, where he grabbed 12-year-old Sara Jean Hina and pulled her down the stairs to Ford, but that Ford lost her grip on the girl and she ran back to her family’s apartment. Smith said Bussieres’ most recent account matched what Elizabeth LaCourse, a resident of the second floor, told police she did during a 1989 interview. “Do you remember that was something that Betty LaCourse did?”Smith asked. “No,” Bussieres said. “I can distinctly remember that it was me.” While questioning a former prosecutor with the Attorney General’s Office Criminal Justice Bureau, McLeod’s attorneys also aimed to back up their claim that the 20-year delay in the investigation of the fire violated McLeod’s rights. Simon Brown testified that he was assigned to the fire between 2001 and 2007, when he left the state agency. Before a Cold Case Unit was established in 2009 to investigate unsolved homicide cases in the state, prosecutors for the Attorney General’s Office were given between one and three unsolved cases to reopen and determine if there were any leads that could be pursued, Brown said. “We had a full schedule of trials each year and were taking on new homicide cases and also handled officer-involved shootings and appeals,” Brown said. “So we were pretty busy.” Barnard asked Brown if there were any leads in the case that he did not follow up on because he did not have the time or resources. “I can’t think of anything concrete,” Brown said. More testimony is expected through the week, including other witnesses to the fire, a former prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office who worked on the case in 1989, and two investigators from the Keene Police Department. Jury selection for the trial, which is slated to be held in Cheshire County Superior Court and is expected to last at least three weeks, is scheduled to begin Oct. 3, according to Court Clerk Barbara A. Hogan.

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