Man charged with starting deadly Schenectady fire
Suspect said to have dated female tenant
SCHENECTADY Robert A. Butler was led into the courtroom Friday morning wearing an anti-suicide smock and no shoes or socks.
He was being arraigned on charges he set the Thursday morning fire that left three children and their father dead and another child critically burned.
Butler looked around the courtroom, shaking.
Outside, the grandfather of the dead children was beside himself. Jeff Woodbeck said he believed Butler should be hanged.
“He should not even be alive right now, he should not even be in that courtroom,” Woodbeck said. “He should be locked away for what he did.”
“If he’s guilty,” Woodbeck continued, “he should be locked up for his life for what he did to my grandkids.”
Killed in the fire at 438 Hulett St. was David Terry, 32, Layah Terry, 3, Michael Terry, 2, and 11-month-old Donavan Duell. A fourth child, 5-year-old Safyre Terry, suffered severe burns and remained Friday in the burn unit at Westchester Medical Center, where authorities reported no change in her condition. She was flown there within hours of the fire in critical condition.
The man now accused of causing all of that is Butler, a 27-year-old with a Saratoga Springs address. He’s also had Schenectady addresses, records show.
City police formally announced his arrest Friday morning, but he was picked up by police by late Thursday afternoon and charged late in the day.
The accusation, according to papers filed in court, is that at about 4:22 a.m. Thursday morning, Butler entered the front stairwell of 438 Hulett St., doused it with a liquid accelerant and set it ablaze.
The stairs, authorities say, led to a second-floor apartment where the father and four children lay sleeping.
Court papers Friday also confirmed two other people were in the second-floor apartment. They escaped injury, along with nine people who fled the first-floor apartment.
Butler currently faces just one count of first-degree arson. By itself, the count carries a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison. However, with the arson accusations and four deaths, Butler is expected to face many more counts, chief among them four separate counts of murder.
The arson charge, according to papers, is based on statements from victims, witnesses and officers. No suspect statements are indicated.
Butler is currently being held without bail in the Schenectady County jail with a corrections officer watching him at all times.
Butler was made to wear the anti-suicide smock to court partly over concerns he might harm himself, police spokesman Lt. Mark McCracken said, but also out of necessity. Butler needed something to wear, McCracken said, as his clothing was taken as evidence.
Butler, those who encountered him previously said, was a man quick to anger, especially when alcohol was involved.
Butler was once the boyfriend of Jennica Duell, who has been described as a mother to the children. One witness described the relationship as abusive. Another believed the relationship ended at least several weeks ago.
Butler, though, was seen at the residence just Wednesday morning, sitting with Duell on a backyard trampoline, according to landlord Nishan Budhoo.
Budhoo, who identified Butler from a photo provided by police, said Butler and Duell seemed friendly at the time of the Wednesday morning encounter, with no indication of any problems between them.
Budhoo said he had seen Butler at the home multiple times in the past and asked Duell if Butler was staying there — Butler’s name was not on the lease. The answer was always the same, he said, that Butler was just visiting.
Carlos Silva, a friend of Duell and Dave Terry, identified Butler on Friday as a former boyfriend of Duell. They had previously broken up, he said.
Silva said he previously partied with Butler, but hadn’t seen him in a month. Silva was at the Duell-Terry apartment visiting until late Wednesday, Silva said previously, leaving when another man was the only one still awake. Silva said he did not see Butler then.
Regarding Butler’s demeanor, Silva was direct.
“He gets mad at everything when he’s drunk,” Silva said.
A neighbor who knew Duell and Butler said the two had dated, but said she also understood they were no longer dating. The neighbor, Jessica Galvan, said she didn’t like Butler, saying she witnessed abuse at his hands.
Butler’s previous run-ins with the law, though, appeared Friday to be limited. In 2006, then with a Schenectady address, Butler was charged with misdemeanor unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, later pleading to disorderly conduct, court records show.
At the scene of the horrific blaze Friday, investigators from multiple agencies continued to work, including the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, city Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco said. That office provides accelerant-detection canines, among other assistance.
Once investigators conclude their evidence-gathering work, Della Rocco said the house will come down because it has been deemed unsafe by the city building inspector.
Della Rocco also gave more details on the attack of the fire Thursday morning, as well as the race to save those inside. The first crews on the scene quickly got reports that people were still inside, Della Rocco said. Crews put water on the front stairwell — the one Butler is now accused of setting afire — and a rear stairwell. They also put ladders up the front of the building.
Each of the victims was taken from the house by way of the front staircase.
“Our personnel didn’t hesitate a bit and attacked the fire and made entry and removed the fire victims very, very rapidly,” Della Rocco said Friday.
Della Rocco said the department has made peer counselors available to the firefighters, as well as the employee assistance program. The department chaplain, the Rev. Richard Carlino, is also offering his services to firefighters who need it.
Just down Hulett Street from the fire scene, at the original location of the police and fire tape, a memorial for those killed grew Friday. Tucked behind a line of votive candles were Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Tigger stuffed animals and many other toys and flowers.
Nyasia Bonds and her sister lit candles and left mementos Friday afternoon. Bonds described herself as a cousin of Dave Terry.
“My cousin Dave was a good father,” Bonds said. “He’s been through a lot in his whole life, and he did everything he could to protect those kids.
“For somebody to take his life and his kids’ life for nothing, that’s crazy. His kids were innocent.”
Bonds said 5-year-old Safyre was severely burned, “but she’s fighting, she’s holding on.”