Buffalo Fire Marshal Sean McKinnie was called to the scene of a fatal fire in the early morning of Oct. 10, 2015 at a boarding house a few blocks from the Central Terminal.
Al-Shariyfa Robinson was among the neighbors who had gathered nearby, and when McKinnie learned she knew people who lived in and managed the Curtiss Street property, he told her he would like to talk to her again.
Robinson surprised him when she finally arrived for an interview three months after the fire, McKinnie testified Tuesday in State Supreme Court. They talked in the kitchen of the fire marshals’ offices. McKinnie said he was “generally, just trying to get information concerning the fire.”
McKinnie then asked her a question he said was standard in all witness interviews: Did you start that fire?
“She said yes,” McKinnie said.
Robinson, 40, now stands trial on two counts of second-degree murder and one count of second-degree arson. Two of the 10 residents of the boarding house died in the fire, James Hodges, 64, and Edward Hughes, 58. Their bodies were found near an upstairs back door that led to a small porch.
The other men living in the old 2 1/2-story wood frame building managed to get out as the flames ate their way up the side of the structure and shot through the roof.
Derrick Williams, who lived there and managed the property, wasn’t home that night. But, according to the statement Robinson made to the marshals, Williams was the reason she set the fire. He was her “on again, off again” boyfriend, and that night he wasn’t answering her calls or texts.
At the request of Assistant District Attorney Paul Glascott, McKinnie read sections of Robinson’s official statement for the jury.
He said she told him that she had been out the night before with some girlfriends, and began trying to reach Williams after she got home, at about 1 a.m. He didn’t respond, so she went to find him at a bar where he told her he might be. He wasn’t there.
So, according to her statement, Robinson decided to do something that would get Williams' attention.
She went home and got together some cooking oil, bug spray, lighter fluid and a grill lighter, and took them to the boarding house. She tried to get a fire started on the side of the building, but couldn’t keep it lit.
“I then went to the corner gas station and purchased motor oil,” she said in her statement.
Using the oil, she was able to get a fire going. Satisfied, she said, she went home and went to bed.
She told McKinnie that her daughter called her to tell her that Williams’ place was on fire. She said she went in the bathroom and got sick.
Then after calling Williams’ new girlfriend to tell her there was a fire, she went to see the fire.
In the interview, she also tells McKinnie she knew that 10 or so people were living in the building. When he asked what her intentions were in starting the fire, she said, “It was not to burn the place down. I was trying to char the siding and make Derrick mad.”
She also said she knew the two victims but didn't plan to kill anyone.
“I knew them, Ed and Jimmy. I’m sorry that they died. It was an accident,” she told McKinnie.
She said that ongoing verbal abuse from Williams and bullying from his new girlfriend had upset her.
“I was not in my right mind, and I accept the consequences that come to me,” she told McKinnie, according to the statement.
On cross-examination by defense attorney Joseph Terranova, McKinnie said that, until her admission, Robinson had not been a suspect in the case.
“She was never a person of interest. We were just talking to people in the neighborhood,” McKinnie testified.
The building was a neighborhood fixture, a faded local landmark near the Central Terminal. It once housed the Old Depot Inn, a popular bar and banquet venue and was licensed as a boarding house in 2013.
Williams had an apartment at the front of the building’s second floor, which was divided by a center hallway with bedrooms on each side.
Kevin Scott, a member of the Buffalo Fire Department's Rescue 1, was among the first on the scene of the fire.
In his testimony Tuesday, he said that, after most of the residents had escaped, fire crews were forced to leave the building temporarily because the fire was moving too fast. After they “knocked a good bit of the fire down,” he was among those who went back inside, doing a room-to-room search for other residents through the thick smoke. When he got to the end of the hall, he said, he felt one person on the floor by a back door, then another. The visibility was so bad, he said, he couldn't tell if they were young or old, alive or dead, but neither person was moving.
“The goal was to get them out,” he said.
But it was too late.
Dr. Scott LaPoint of the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office testified the men died of carbon dioxide intoxication.
The trial had an unusual start when testimony resumed Wednesday morning. Derrick Williams, the boarding house manager who reportedly had been Robinson's boyfriend, was scheduled as the first witness of the day. However, before prosecutors could ask him any questions, Williams told Justice Penny M. Wolfgang that he was "taking the fifth," and that neither the judge nor the attorneys could do anything about it.
Suspects in criminal cases are allowed to remain silent by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, to avoid self-incrimination. However, Williams hasn't been charged with any crime and was not being asked to testify against himself. The judge instructed that an attorney be provided for Williams to advise him of his rights and responsibilities, but Williams, who appeared agitated and angry, apparently left the courthouse before his new attorney could consult with him.
That left the morning open for testimony from other members of the Buffalo Fire Department who took part in the investigation.
Fire Marshal Paul Simonian described how they determined where and how the fire started, ruling out any electrical, mechanical or natural causes. He said it was clear the fire started outside the building, and that accelerant was found in debris from that area. He also said there was nothing nearby that could have been the source of an accidental ignition of the blaze.
The trial was adjourned for the afternoon while efforts continued to resolve the issues of Derrick Williams' testimony.
Story topics: State Supreme Court