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Suspect cleared in deadly Hulett Street fire

Blaze killed man, 3 kids

Friday, February 7, 2014
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In this May 2, 2013 file photo, Schenectady firefighters battle the fire on Hulett Street. Four people died in the fire.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
In this May 2, 2013 file photo, Schenectady firefighters battle the fire on Hulett Street. Four people died in the fire.

— The man charged with setting the Hulett Street fire last May that killed a father and three of his children was set free Friday evening after prosecutors dropped all charges.

Federal prosecutors cited “information regarding the involvement of others” among reasons for the dismissal of charges against Robert A. Butler, who had in custody since May. The deadline for an indictment was Monday.

The dismissal comes as sources indicated Friday a second suspect has emerged. That suspect also had an ongoing dispute with David Terry, the father who died in the blaze.

Representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a statement early Friday evening saying the criminal inquiry remains active.

“We are completely committed to continuing this investigation until justice is done,” U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian said in the news release. “The victims of this horrific crime deserve and will continue to get our best efforts to secure justice.”

Butler was released sometime Friday evening, though his attorney, William Easton, declined to say when or where. Butler had been in custody since the day after the May 2, 2013, blaze.

Because Butler was facing federal charges, he could have faced the death penalty.

Killed in the fire at 438 Hulett St. were Terry, 32, and his children Layah, 3, Michael, 2, and Donavan Duell, 11 months. The only child to survive was 5-year-old Sa’fyre Terry, but she was badly injured. Safyre has made significant progress in her recovery, family members have said.

The news hit Terry family members hard Friday night. Liz Dolder said she was “completely devastated.”

Dolder was David Terry’s sister, as well as the guardian of Layah Terry. Layah was staying with her father the night of the fire. Dolder also has been by her niece Sa’fyre’s side as the girl recovers from her injuries.

Dolder said she learned about the dismissal from a detective, who she said assured her investigators continue to work hard on the case.

“All I can say is we have continued faith that justice will be served and we are truly grateful for all the investigators because they are working tirelessly on this case,” Dolder said.

Easton, who was added to the case in June because of his extensive experience in defending death penalty cases, welcomed the decision to release his client.

“We think it’s entirely appropriate that this criminal complaint has been dismissed against Robert Butler,” said Easton, who worked in the state Capital Defender’s Office for more than a decade. “He’s not guilty of the offense, and photographic and documentary evidence proves it.

“We’re relieved that these heinous accusations are withdrawn.”

Butler, 27, of Saratoga Springs, was charged federally in June with one count of arson causing death. Since then, though, a second suspect emerged. Sources said a street surveillance camera caught a unique vehicle at the home prior to the fire breaking out. The owner of that vehicle also had had a dispute with Terry, sources said.

The order of dismissal sets out the general reasons for the move.

“The gravity of the crime and the potential punishments, the unusual and complex facts, including information regarding the involvement of others, and the circumstances regarding eyewitnesses, necessitate further investigation,” the filing reads.

Along with the June charge against Butler, prosecutors filed a detailed affidavit that contended Butler traveled to the house with three others, upset at Terry after a prior argument. The account had Butler pouring gasoline into a clear bottle and then setting the stairway on fire.

Police caught up with Butler and two of the other three later that day. All three initially claimed they were in Saratoga Springs all night. The other two, though, soon changed their story. They described what happened and said they were present when Butler started the fire, according to the initial affidavit.

One detective interviewing Butler at the time smelled gasoline on him, according to the affidavit. A later forensic examination of Butler‘s clothing did not reveal gasoline, however.

 
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