HANSON – At 3:22 p.m., on July 5, 2018, temperatures hit a daily high of 94 degrees, 28 minutes into a major four-hour firefighting effort at the former JJ’s Pub, 16 Liberty St., according to a State Police report at Plymouth District Court and unofficial climate data collected by the National Weather Service. That Thursday was among the hottest days of the summer.
Prosecutors allege that the three-alarm fire was intentionally set by Alfred C. Russo, 75, of Bourne. Russo was arrested at his Buzzards Bay home by Massachusetts State Police Wednesday, Aug. 29, according to a statement from the office of Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz. He was transported to Plymouth District Court and arraigned on three charges: one count of burning of a dwelling and two counts of arson causing injuries to a firefighter.
Russo was a 26-year veteran of the Boston Fire Department, joining in 1969 and retiring as a firefighter assigned to the Marine Unit in 1995.
Represented by attorney Edward Wells, Russo appeared before Judge James M. Sullivan and pleaded not guilty to the charges, according to court documents. Although the Commonwealth asked for $15,000 bail, Sullivan released him with a GPS monitoring ankle bracelet on personal recognizance, disappointing Hanson Fire Chief Jerome Thompson Jr.
Sullivan is first justice of Plymouth District Court, according to the court’s website.
Thompson took to his personal Twitter account to express his displeasure Wednesday evening, which was widely reported by area news media.
“This guy put two of my firefighters in the hospital. Several firefighters and public at risk and stripped our neighboring communities of their firefighting assets and gets out on personal recognizance with an ankle bracelet. Very disappointing to say the least,” tweeted Thompson. “Law Enforcement worked diligently on this case. The District Attorney asked for $15,000 bail. Very disappointed with the Judge,” he continues.
Speaking to the Express Monday morning, he said, “I was very pleased with the law enforcement effort…I’m not a judge. I’m not a prosecutor, but I think some of the circumstances warranted that he be held.”
Thompson added, “I don’t usually speak out. But this stripped firefighting resources from other towns, involved road closures, and we had to cut the power, which also affected businesses. … I think it’s very disturbing, if he is guilty, that he is a former firefighter.”
Russo denies all allegations.
The fire, which Thompson said nearly reached four alarms, totally destroyed the approximately five-year abandoned commercial property adjacent to the intersections of Liberty Street and East and West Washington Streets. Investigators deemed it to be an estimated $400,000 loss, according to court documents.
It sent two firefighters, Lieutenant Sherilyn Mullin and Timothy Royer, to area hospitals with heat-related injuries. Both had to miss some work due to their injuries, according to court documents.
An Express photographer was also hospitalized for heat-related illness after covering the incident.
The fire took some time to extinguish, due to the full involvement of the structure, according to the statement from the district attorney, and many towns and the state responded or provided station coverage for Hanson during the incident, according to Thompson.
The response included personnel and equipment from Abington, East Bridgewater, Halifax, Hanover, Kingston, Pembroke, Rockland, Whitman, as well as the Whitman Community Emergency Response Team and the Department of Fire Services Rehab Unit from Middleboro.
In a police interview, the owner of the Hanson property, identified as Patricia Harrison, of Bourne, says she and the defendant, Russo, a friend, were together at her home when she received a call from her real estate agent about the fire. Harrison’s longtime boyfriend, Wayne Cummings, says he was out walking the dog when he received word of the fire from Harrison.
Yet, both Harrison and Cummings identified Russo’s Jeep, in Hanson, when shown it in later interviews from cameras across from JJ’s Pub at times proximate to the fire, according to the State Police report.
Video surveillance from Dandel Construction Corporation was used to identify a party parking a vehicle on the side of the building, who then entered through a door and remained inside for nearly eight minutes, according to the report. The party then exited, entered a vehicle and drove away. About six minutes after the party exits the structure, smoke is visible venting from the roof, it continues. Less than nine minutes later, fire is visible out of a side window.
When investigators went to meet Russo at his home in Bourne two weeks after the incident, police say he, “spontaneously stated that he was driving his Jeep in Hanson on the day of the fire.”
Russo, who was then taken for a voluntary interview at the Bourne Police Department, stated that he had been in Hanson on the day of the fire for a cookout at Cummings’ sister’s house, but didn’t end up attending because he didn’t feel well, according to the report.
He freely admitted to driving to the JJ’s Pub property, purportedly to move a generator, but said he never went inside, according to police.
Russo spoke at length to the Express, reached on his cellphone Monday afternoon, saying that he was “shocked” and “sickened” by the fire.
“Do you want something to print?” he asked as he chuckled. “I’m proclaiming my innocence.”
His statements echoed those that he made to the police. He said that he was in Hanson primarily to attend a cookout, but that he had taken a medication for his acid reflux since he was not feeling well.
He then said he went to the JJ’s Pub property to move a generator behind the building with his trailer, at the request of Cummings, the second reason he was in Hanson that day.
Russo denied going inside the pub and said his presence there before the fire was just a coincidence.
“It’s a bad coincidence, but some coincidences are just coincidences,” he said. “When I left that building it wasn’t burning.”
“I have a good reputation with the fire department, why in God’s name would I set that fire? It doesn’t make sense.” Russo said. “Everything that they have is circumstantial. … I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Russo blamed the fire on spontaneous combustion from trash and oily rags inside the building, stating how hot it had been the week of the fire.
“It’s also a problematic location,” he said, adding that there had been a recent arson nearby.
When questioned on the subject, he said that he had never seen a case of spontaneous combustion in his 26-year career as a Boston firefighter, but that special investigators, not firefighters make that determination.
The lead investigator on the case was Massachusetts State Police Trooper Thomas Berteletti, a detective from the Fire and Explosion Investigation Section attached to the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal’s office.
Fire investigations are, “witness-driven and multi-jurisdictional. … Specially trained Massachusetts State Police detectives have functioned as State Fire Marshal investigators for more than 50 years,” according to the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services.
“By law, the local fire department is responsible for determining the origin and cause of each fire or explosion in its jurisdiction. The Massachusetts State Fire Marshal is mandated to investigate the cause and circumstances of fires and explosions where local fire authorities are unable to determine the cause, where a violation of law exists, or when the fire or explosion is classified as suspicious or incendiary in nature,” according to their webpage.
The cause of the JJ’s Pub fire was preliminarily determined to be, “open flame to combustible material,” according to court documents as well as, “either ignited in multiple locations or…the fire was accelerated by the use of an ignitable liquid or heavy concentration of combustibles throughout the interior.”
The Massachusetts State Police Fire and Explosion Investigation Section, Hanson Police and Hanson Fire Departments investigated, and the investigation is ongoing, said the district attorney’s office.
“Arson fires have a certain look to them. And they bulldozed that building. I don’t know why they did that. Also, why would someone set a fire in the middle of the day? That’s not something an arsonist would do,” Russo declared.
He is scheduled to be in court Monday, Oct. 15, for a probable cause hearing.
Harrison and Cummings could not be reached for comment.