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Woman guilty of two murders and arson in East Side boarding house fire

A woman who admitted to investigators that she set a fire at a boarding house that claimed the lives of two men was found guilty late Thursday of two counts of murder in the second degree and one count of second-degree arson.

Jurors in State Supreme Court determined that Al-Shariyfa Robinson, 40, was guilty of the three highest charges against her, and rejected the option of finding her guilty of arson in the fifth degree, a misdemeanor.

Justice Penny M. Wolfgang, presiding over her last murder trial as a supreme court justice, set sentencing for Jan. 4.

In a statement made to fire investigators three months after the Oct. 10, 2015, blaze at 392 Curtiss St., Robinson said she started the fire but only expected it to scorch the outside of the 2 1/2-story wood frame structure. She said she expected news of the blaze to get the attention of her on-again, off-again boyfriend, who lived in and managed the boarding house, but was away that night and not responding to her text messages.

After the fire started, she said, she called the man’s new girlfriend and told her to tell him the place was burning.

There were about 10 men living in individual rooms on the second floor of the building, which at one time housed the Old Depot Inn bar and banquet venue. Most of the men were asleep when the fire tore up one side of the building.

However, all but two were able to escape through the exit on the opposite side of the structure.

During the trial, Kevin Scott, a member of the Buffalo Fire Department’s Rescue 1, testified about how he found the victims on the second floor near a locked exterior door that would have led to a small balcony.

Rescuers were not able to revive James Hodges, 64, and Edward Hughes, 58, after they were taken from the building. A doctor with the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office testified the men died from carbon dioxide intoxication.

Jurors appeared to rely heavily on the statement Robinson made in January to Fire Investigator Sean McKinnie. Robinson lived a short distance away from the boarding house on Geneva Street and was asked to be interviewed as a possible witness after it was determined that the fire was intentionally set. McKinnie testified that Robinson had not been a suspect in the case and came to his office voluntarily.

He also said he was surprised when she told him she set the fire.

Reading from her statement, McKinnie said Robinson acknowledged that she was aware people were living at 392 Curtiss St. but that she did not expect the fire to spread to the entire building.

She also told him she knew “Ed and Jimmy,” the two men who died and said that their deaths were an accident.

The case was prosecuted by Paul J. Glascott, chief of the district attorney’s Felony Trial Bureau, and Assistant District Attorney Cathleen M. Roemer.

In his closing statement Thursday, defense attorney Joseph J. Terranova pointed out for the jury that, other than Robinson’s statement, the prosecution had presented no evidence that linked her to the crime. Most testimony centered on how it was determined that the fire was arson, not on who the arsonist might be.

“Is there any proof at all that Missy Robinson was seen there?” Terranova asked jurors. “There are no eyewitnesses. No DNA. No video. Nothing except my client’s statement.”

For the jury, that was enough.

They deliberated for about 70 minutes before returning their unanimous verdict.

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