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William Cascone

Other Exonerations for Arson
On October 26, 1984, Jeanette Scott threw a party at her apartment on the fourth floor of a building in North Adams, Massachusetts. Scott, who was 19 years old, had moved into the apartment two days earlier with her two daughters, 4-year-old Sandra and 3-year-old Charlene.

The four-story building at 279 State Street was approximately 100 years old and made of wood with asphalt-shingle siding. It had been condemned a few years earlier, but the order had been lifted after the building’s owner, Simon Simon, made repairs. Simon and his wife lived on the second floor in the only unit with a smoke detector. Counting the Scotts, four of the other five apartments had tenants. Because the building backed up to a hill, the ground level at the back began on the second floor.

Scott’s party went into the early morning. Many of the seven guests drank heavily, and, by one estimate, they smoked 14 packs of cigarettes. At 5 a.m., 22-year-old Michael Richter, a guest at the party, saw flames coming from a back stairway. Kathy Monette, who lived on the south side of the third floor, smelled smoke at the same time and then saw flames on her back porch.

The North Adams Fire Department had received a call at 5:34 a.m. The fire was now raging, visible from the firehouse a half-mile away.

Three hours later, rescue workers found the bodies of Sandra and Charlene, and 16-year-old Brent “Buddy” Tatro, who had attended Scott’s party and was said to have gone to sleep sometime after 4 a.m. Scott, Richter, Glen Sumner, Jay Deeley, and Sherry Tatro, who was Buddy Tatro’s cousin, were injured when they jumped out of the fourth-floor window to escape the fire. Two of the survivors would later say that they didn’t save Scott’s daughters in part because of concerns the girls would be badly hurt when they were dropped or fell out of the window.

Trooper Robert Scott, an arson investigator with the Massachusetts State Police, led the investigation. Scott arrived at the scene at 8 a.m. and began examining the building’s charred remains and interviewing the people who lived in the building and attended Scott’s party. He would later testify that by 1:30 p.m. he had concluded that the fire was intentionally set and that by 8 p.m. he had a prime suspect. He interviewed Simon, the building’s owner, who told him there was no electricity on the back porches.

Bernard Marsh, who lived with his wife and children in the apartment below Jeanette Scott, told Trooper Scott said that he was awakened at 2 a.m. on October 27 by a woman yelling, “Get him the f— out of here.” He said he left the apartment at about 4 a.m. to go deer hunting in Vermont and while waiting for his ride saw two young men get into a maroon Chevy Nova. One was Buddy Tatro. The other was Tatro’s close friend, 17-year-old William “Bill” Cascone. Marsh said the two young men drove off and returned about 10 minutes later and walked towards the back of the building.

Trooper Richard Smith, who assisted Scott, interviewed Monette. She said that after she saw the flames, she roused her boyfriend, Christopher Morehouse, and the Marshes, then made her way down the stairs. On the second floor, Monette said, a skinny kid with a mustache appeared to come out of Simon’s apartment and run past her out of the building.

The troopers interviewed the injured people at the North Adams Regional Hospital. Sumner said he had arrived at the party with Cascone and the two Tatros, who were distantly related to Jeanette Scott. At some point, Sumner said, he heard Jeanette Scott tell Cascone to leave. Sumner said that Cascone drove him to the hospital after he jumped out of the building and that Cascone was very drunk.

Richter told the troopers that the young man with Sumner and Buddy Tatro argued with Jeanette Scott after she accused him of hitting on her. The man left, then came back for the beer he had brought to the party. Richter said that as the young man left at around 4:45 a.m., he said something like “You’re going to get yours.”

Sherry Tatro and Deeley gave similar statements to the troopers about an argument between Cascone and Jeanette Scott, although neither said they remembered any specific threats.

At about 3 p.m. on October 27, Trooper Scott interviewed Buddy Tatro’s parents. Carolyn Tatro said that Cascone had called the house at about 11 a.m. and asked whether Buddy was there. After she said he wasn’t, Cascone told her that they had been together at a party in North Adams and that there had been a fire. She said Cascone told her that he had an argument with Jeanette Scott. Lynne Tatro, Buddy’s sister, told the troopers that Cascone had appeared to make a joke about not knowing the whereabouts of her brother.

The troopers interviewed Cascone at 6:30 p.m. on October 27 at his home in Charlemont, about 15 miles east of North Adams. He said Jeanette Scott became mad at him for no reason. He said he left the party just before 1 a.m., returned around 2 a.m., then left for good around 4 a.m., after Scott started in on him again.

Cascone said he fell asleep in the Nova and woke up around 5 a.m. to urinate. He said he heard a crackling noise and saw the back of the building on fire. He said he tried to kick in the front door, later broke a window, and then ran across the street to a bar and told someone to call 911. By the time he returned, Cascone said, Sumner was hanging out of a window and others were on the ground hurt. He took Sumner to the hospital and then returned, waiting for Buddy Tatro.

Under questioning by Smith, Cascone said he only had a little bit to drink at the party. He also repeated that he had argued with Jeanette Scott, but didn’t know what he did to make her so mad that she threw him out twice. He also said he had gotten into the building after breaking the window and had alerted several tenants about the fire.

Trooper Scott asked Cascone if he set the fire. Cascone responded, according to Scott’s report: “What? Do you think I’m that sick?”

The troopers then gave Cascone his Miranda warnings and asked him to take a polygraph test, which was administered on October 31. The test was halted after Cascone started to cough and hyperventilate. The trooper who administered the test would later tell Scott that he believed Cascone, who had a cold, had tried to sabotage the test after the initial run-through showed deception.

On October 30, the police received a call from B.J. Roche, a reporter at the newspaper in nearby Greenfield. She said that a man named Charles Chandler had told her that Cascone said he and his brother, Michael, set the fire in North Adams using gasoline. According to Chandler, the brothers were upset at being thrown out of the party.

A week later, on November 5, Chandler contacted Smith and said that a friend of his knew “something” about the fire. According to Chandler, Bill Cascone had confessed to lighting some cardboard boxes on fire and that he and his brother “didn’t mean to burn people up, they just wanted to end the party.”

In another interview with the state police, on November 13, 1984, Chandler said, “I would love to be a witness to what [the friend] said, because I don’t like any of the Cascones.”

At the time, the Cascones and Chandlers were embroiled in a series of criminal cases that had started nearly a year earlier, on December 18, 1983, when a fire destroyed Chandler’s home in the town of Heath.

A month later, Chandler was charged with two counts of rape and a related charge involving a girl who was 14 years old. Michael Cascone was a witness in the rape case, and Chandler was later indicted on charges that he tried to prevent Michael and another man from testifying. In March, Chandler was indicted for insurance fraud in connection with the house fire. Bill Cascone told the police that Chandler had offered another man $1,000 to burn down his house. The man refused.

Charles Chandler was acquitted on the rape charges on November 29, 1984. Michael Cascone had testified for the state. Harvey Chandler testified for his son. He said that he had by chance run into the victim at a coffee shop and the girl had told him “nothing happened.”

On December 21, Scott interviewed Chandler’s friend, who was said to have heard Cascone’s confession. John Perdue denied that Cascone confessed to the North Adams fire, but he said Cascone told him he once set a fire in a shed at Mohawk Park, a nearby state forest.

Just after midnight, on December 28, Chandler called Trooper Scott and said that he and his father had just met with Bill Cascone at the town dump in Rowe, where Cascone confessed to setting the North Adams fire. According to Chandler, Cascone said he didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt; the fire had gotten out of control. Chandler also said that Cascone threatened Trooper Scott’s family.

During the investigation, Scott received tips about other possible suspects. On January 4, 1985, he interviewed William Stanley at the Berkshire County jail. Stanley said Wayne Nassif told him that he and another man started the fire by soaking some rags in gasoline.

Four days after Scott’s interview with Stanley, the Chandlers testified before a Berkshire County grand jury, repeating their account of Bill Cascone’s confession at the dump. The state dismissed Charles Chandler’s charges for insurance fraud in March 1985 and dismissed the witness intimidation charges in July.

On September 12, 1985, Scott submitted his report on the North Adams fire. He said he and Smith agreed that the fire began on the second-floor back porch, because it was the area of the “deepest and most complete amount of fire damage.” He said it was unlikely the fire began on a higher floor and “dropped down” to the lower level. First, Scott said, the porch planking above the second floor was relatively sturdy. Second, Smith said, the witness statements suggested only a few minutes between when the residents of the building first smelled smoke and when they saw flames. In addition, Scott said the fire left V-shaped burn patterns starting on the south side of the second-floor porch and spreading “upward and outward.”

Scott’s report eliminated faulty electrical work, discounted the possibility of an accidental fire started by a discarded cigarette, and said the more probable cause was an intentional act of arson. “We feel this is a more likely situation because fires that do start from a cigarette or other relatively slow starting method usually smolder for longer periods of time and are very smokey.”

Scott’s report said that the evidence pointed to Cascone. He wrote that several witnesses said Cascone was angry at Scott for throwing him out of the party twice, the second time said to be at about 4:45 a.m. “Trooper Smith and I believe that if some type of smoldering had been going on prior to Cascone leaving, that he would have to have been aware of it when he left. We also do not believe there was time for him to get down to the car and fall asleep before the fire was discovered up in the apartments. Bill Cascone was the only person to have any motive for starting this fire.”

“All that remains,” the report concluded, “is a presentation to a grand jury.”

Three months after Scott submitted his report, Stanley elaborated on his claim that other persons set the fire. In a letter to an assistant prosecutor written December 12, 1985, Stanley wrote that Nassif told him the other man who set the fire was George Belanger Jr.

A Berkshire County Grand Jury indicted Bill Cascone on three counts of murder and arson on February 19, 1986, and an arrest warrant was issued. By then, Cascone had graduated from Mohawk High School and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was stationed in South Korea and brought to Okinawa, Japan, where Trooper Scott arrested him at Camp Foster on March 10, 1986.

During a brief interview, Cascone told Scott that he left the party around 4 a.m. and woke up to a popping sound. Scott asked him why Charles Chandler said he confessed. Cascone said, “Because he hates my family. My brother testified against him in court.”

Cascone was flown on a military airplane to Los Angeles, California, then escorted by Scott and other troopers to Massachusetts.

Cascone’s jury trial in Berkshire County Superior Court began on June 3, 1987. He was represented by attorney Leonard Cohen.

Jeanette Scott testified that she and Cascone had a heated argument at 4:45 a.m., when Cascone returned to the apartment and demanded she return the beer he brought to the party. She said Cascone threatened her as he left. Scott acknowledged in her testimony that her initial statement to police made no mention of any such threats. When Scott was admitted to the hospital that morning, her blood-alcohol content measured .29, nearly three times the legal limit for intoxication. But she said, “I wasn’t so drunk that I couldn’t function or anything like that.”

Bernard Marsh testified that he saw Cascone and Tatro at 4 a.m. outside the building, drive away, and then return about 10 minutes later and walk back inside.

The state called Charles Chandler to testify about his conversations with Cascone, but Chandler invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. According to a letter from the state to Cohen, Chandler was concerned about being charged with perjury because his testimony before the grand jury in 1985 differed dramatically from his earlier statements to Trooper Scott in 1984.

The state called Harvey Chandler to testify about the conversation between his son and Cascone on December 27, 1984. Chandler said that he did not participate in the conversation, but heard it from an open window in his truck, as the two younger men talked outside the vehicle. At first, Chandler testified, he could not hear what was being said, but then, he said, Cascone raised his voice and said, “I didn’t mean to kill anybody I just wanted to scare ’em. But the fire got too big and I looked around for something to put it out, but I couldn’t find anything, so I split.”

Chandler testified that was the only part of the conversation he could recall. During cross-examination, Cohen pressed Chandler on the bad blood between the Chandlers and the Cascones. “What are your feelings toward the Cascone family,” he asked. “There are no feelings between me and the Cascones at all,” Chandler answered.

In addition, Harvey Chandler was unable to make a courtroom identification of Cascone, who was sitting at the defense table.

Simon testified about the building and its condition. He said he had bought smoke detectors but not installed them and that he let Jeanette Scott and her daughters move in without a certificate of occupancy “through my generosity.” He also testified that none of the rear porches contained active electrical outlets, which differed slightly from his statement to Trooper Scott that the porches had no electricity.

Trooper Scott testified about his investigation. He said that he identified burn patterns and the lowest point of the burn to determine the fire’s starting point, which he said was the south corner on the back of the second floor. Scott said that he found nothing indicating the fire was set, but rather made a determination of intent based on eliminating accidental causes. He testified that fires started by cigarettes tended to be slow-burning and glowing, while the North Adams fire burned fast and with orange flames.

Scott testified that he did not collect any debris from the fire for analysis and only dug in an area very close to what he considered to be the fire’s source. He also testified that he did not explore other causes of the fire, such as electrical or gas problems.

Scott testified that Cascone’s statements to police appeared to be contradictory. In one statement, Cascone said he smoked a few cigarettes before falling asleep in Tatro’s car. In another, Cascone said he had no smoking materials. According to Scott’s reports, Cascone first said he woke up to urinate and then saw the fire. But when interviewed in Okinawa, according to Scott, Cascone said he was awakened by an explosion. In addition, Scott testified, Cascone said he ran up the back stairs to warn Scott and the other residents to get out of the building. Scott said that this account conflicted with what he considered to be the fire’s starting point, which would have blocked the route that Cascone described.

Lieutenant James T. Keaveney, an arson investigator with the fire department in the Boston suburb of Chelsea, testified for the defense. He said that Scott had reached a conclusion on the fire’s cause without performing a thorough investigation, which would have included examining building records, electrical issues, code violations, and faulty appliances. Keaveney said it was not possible to locate a point of origin for the fire based on the factors used by Trooper Scott, because the fire was so large by the time firefighters arrived and because of the possibility of drop-down fires from the higher floors.

Keaveney testified that he agreed with Scott that an arson investigator could properly conclude that a fire was set by eliminating accidental causes, but he said that Scott hadn’t adequately excluded those causes. He also agreed that cigarette-lit fires tended to smolder for long periods and produce a lot of smoke. He was not asked whether a cigarette could have started the fire.

Cascone testified that he never threatened anyone at Scott’s party or set the fire. He said he and Scott had argued over the beer he wanted to take with him, but that he wasn’t angry when he left the party.

In his testimony, Cascone attempted to address Trooper Scott’s testimony about his statements. He testified that he was sleeping in Tatro’s car when he was woken up by a loud noise and the need to urinate. That was when he first saw the fire. He testified that he had no matches when he left the apartment and lit his last cigarette in the car from the one he was smoking at the time. Cascone testified that Scott’s confusion about his actions in the moments after he said he first saw the fire were either based on misunderstandings or the police not asking the right questions.

In his closing argument, Cohen said the state’s case relied on faulty forensics and a confession that didn’t make sense. “Billy Cascone sets a fire with Buddy Tatro in the apartment—with his closest friend in the apartment—then confesses to the archenemy,” Cohen said, with sarcasm in his voice.

He also criticized Trooper Scott’s report and conclusions, noting an absence of laboratory testing of any evidence. “Before you find Mr. Cascone guilty of a crime, you have to find that there has been a crime,” Cohen said. “Where’s the evidence?”

Prosecutor Lee Dianne Flournoy told jurors that Cascone was drunk and angry, and that he lied about when he left the party “to give himself time to fall asleep.”

She said the evidence supported convictions of second-degree murder, based on a death that occurred during the commission of another felony, rather than first-degree murder, which required premeditation.

The jury convicted Cascone of arson and three counts of second-degree murder on June 15, 1987. He was sentenced to three life sentences for the murder convictions, and 18-20 years in prison for the arson conviction. All the sentences were to be served concurrently.

Cascone appealed his conviction, arguing—among other things—that there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction and that Flournoy had improperly questioned the sincerity of Cascone’s courtroom demeanor, which she said was “mellow.”

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on February 26, 1990. Cascone was eligible for parole after 15 years in prison. Three times he declined to participate in the process, in part because he was unwilling to admit guilt.

Since Cascone’s conviction, there has been a dramatic re-examination of arson science—the techniques used in investigating suspicious fires and the conclusions that forensic experts should draw from the evidence in these cases. These new guidelines were published in 1992 by the National Fire Protection Association and later endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Arson Investigators. These guidelines urge investigators to rely on scientific methods rather than anecdotal evidence and to discourage findings of arson based on the absence of other explanations.

Attorneys and law students with the Boston College Innocence Program directed by Professor Sharon Beckman began representing Cascone in 2018. On July 1, 2021, BCIP senior staff attorney Charlotte Whitmore, along with Boston College Law School postgraduate fellow attorney Sarah Elkins and Massachusetts Access to Justice Fellow attorney Judith Tracy, and attorney David Grimaldi, appointed through the Committee for Public Counsel Services Innocence Program, filed a motion for a new trial, claiming that Scott’s report was based on now-discredited investigative methods and flawed theories about how fires start and spread.

Dr. Craig Beyler, an experienced fire investigator and former chairman of the International Association for Fire Safety Science, re-examined Scott’s work and reviewed the trial testimony of Scott and other witnesses. His report, included in the motion, said, “The investigation of this fire was incomplete and used methods and approaches that would not be accepted today, based on our modern understanding of fire science and the use of the scientific method.”

The problems were numerous, Beyler said. Scott worked too quickly and reached a conclusion before collecting sufficient evidence. “When additional data indicated that the fire may not have started on the second-floor porch, the data was ignored or improperly interpreted to fit the earlier origin determination. The effect of expectation bias was not well understood in the fire investigation community in the 1980s,” Beyler wrote.

Beyler said that Scott and Smith were too quick to dismiss a discarded cigarette as the fire’s source, because they erroneously believed the butt would be too smoky as it smoldered to escape notice or that it couldn’t start a fire in the time frame they had established.

“Based on our modern understanding of cigarette-initiated fires, a dropped cigarette any time during the evening/night of the fire could have started this fire,” Beyler wrote.

Beyler’s report said the most likely origin point for the fire was the third floor, based on the statements of witnesses—including Cascone—about when they smelled smoke, saw flames, and the problems they had reaching the fourth floor.

Although the motion said there was no clear scientific evidence to support the conclusion that the fire was set, if it was set, new evidence pointed at Nassif and Belanger as the persons who might have been involved.

Belanger’s sister said in an affidavit in 2021 that her brother and Jeanette Scott had dated but broken up about a week before the fire. She said Belanger was mad that Scott was already seeing someone new. The sister said, “When George drank, he became impulsively violent and would lash out at anyone or anything for no reason…I think that George was capable of setting the State Street fire.”

Separately, Stanley had signed an affidavit in 2019 that said Nassif told him he set the fire with Belanger because Nassif had lived in the building and was angry at the landlord for kicking him out. In addition, Nassif had a conviction for arson in the same time period as the North Adams fire.

The motion also said that Cohen had provided ineffective representation. It said that he failed to properly investigate Stanley’s claims about the involvement of Nassif and Belanger and to interview Perdue about Charles Chandler’s previous false statements, which would have undermined Harvey Chandler’s credibility as a witness to Cascone’s purported confession.

The motion included a 2019 affidavit from Perdue that said an unnamed prosecutor threatened to hold him in contempt in 1984 if he didn’t sign a statement saying that Cascone had confessed to setting a fire at Mohawk Park. That wasn’t true, but “the prosecutor wanted me to say that Bill started the fire at Mohawk Park to show that Bill had a pattern of setting fires and arson,” the affidavit said.

In addition, the motion said, Cohen told jurors in his opening statement that they would hear from witnesses who described a young man running from the fire who was much slighter than Cascone and wearing different clothing. But those witnesses never testified.

The motion also said that Flournoy misstated the evidence in her closing argument, repeatedly telling the jury that Keaveney and Scott agreed that the fire started in the building’s back south corner. “Keaveney testified twenty-one times that he could not determine the point of origin of the fire, yet the prosecutor said seven times in her closing argument that he could,” the motion said.

After the motion was filed, Cascone’s attorneys moved separately for a stay of his sentence and his release from prison. In filings, the attorneys said that Cascone was a model prisoner with strong roots in the community and that the state’s initial response to the motion for a new trial had also found “deficiencies” in Scott’s investigation that “call into question the reliability of the evidence presented at trial and in turn, the overall integrity of this conviction.”

Judge Michael Callan of Berkshire County Superior Court granted the stay on August 11, 2022, ordering Cascone’s release under tightly supervised parole. Cascone left prison that day. He was 55 years old.

Judge Callan of Berkshire County Superior held an evidentiary hearing on April 11, 2023, where he heard testimony from Beyler and Michael Mazza, a fire investigator with the Massachusetts State Police. Beyler testified consistent with his report.

Mazza testified that Scott’s investigation did not meet current standards either in its methodology or conclusions. Mazza testified that Scott’s use of the lowest point of the burn, greatest damage, and V-shaped burn patterns to determine the fire’s point of origin was based on “old wives’ tales.” He testified that Scott should not have eliminated either a discarded cigarette or an electrical problem as the potential cause of the fire.

Judge Callan granted Cascone a new trial on June 14, 2023. “Although Trooper Scott’s 1984 investigation was undertaken in good faith according to best practices as understood at the time, those practices are now known to be scientifically flawed such that they cannot, standing alone, adequately support his original cause-and-origin conclusions,” Judge Callan wrote. His order rejected Cascone’s other claims in his motion for a new trial.

The state dismissed Cascone’s charges on June 27, 2023.

“Applying the current science to the evidence that exists today results in both an unknown origin, and an unknown cause for [the] fire,” the state said. It noted that the building was demolished, preventing any reexamination. “This means that the Commonwealth cannot state with any degree of certainty that the fire had been intentionally set.”

In a statement released by his attorneys, Cascone said: “It was a long time coming and a cause for celebration. I am getting used to the free world again and enjoying spending time with my family and being outside in nature.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 7/21/2023
Last Updated: 7/21/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:1984
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No