On April 21, 2001, seven minutes after James Hebshie left his convenience store, Main Street Lottery & News Store, a fire broke out, heavily damaging the business in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Hebshie, 55, was immediately suspected of having set the blaze. After an investigation by local fire officials and insurance company investigators, he was indicted on May 22, 2002.
He went to trial in 2006 in U.S. District Court on charges of arson, mail fraud and using fire to commit a felony. Prosecutors contended that he had set the fire to collect on a $30,000 insurance policy.
State Trooper David Domingos, an investigator in the State Fire Marshal’s Office, testified that his investigation showed the fire started in the wall of Hebshie’s store. He said he ruled out the basement as the origin of the fire.
“Billy,” an accelerant-sniffing dog, was brought and alerted to an area where Domingos believed the fire started. A chemical analysis by the State Police Crime Laboratory identified it as a light petroleum distillate.
Hebshie was convicted by a jury on June 29, 2006. He was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison.
In 2010, Hebshie’s appellate lawyers filed a motion for a new trial. On November 15, 2010, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner set aside Hebshie’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
The judge ruled that Hebshie’s trial attorneys had failed to challenge the scientific evidence and that the prosecution evidence had been flawed.
At the request of the defense, John Lentini, one of the nation’s leading fire scientists, analyzed the evidence and concluded the fire started in the basement—which was not part of Hebshie’s leased space in the building.
Gertner found that accelerant-sniffing dog’s handler was allowed to testify to “an almost mystical account” of Billy’s capabilities and made unsubstantiated statement’s about the dog’s accuracy.
The judge was critical of evidence collection procedures and noted that the light petroleum distillate could have come from a number of products in Hebshie’s store.
Hebshie was released from prison on bond on November 23, 2010, pending a retrial.
The prosecution dismissed the charges on June 20, 2011. Hebshie passed away in 2015.
– Maurice Possley