By JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN, Associated Press
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) _ A Connecticut man confessed three times to setting a 2011 gas-fueled fire that killed three members of the same family and forced others to jump out windows, a prosecutor said Monday.
Witnesses will testify that Hector Natal admitted setting the fire in New Haven that killed 42-year-old Wanda Roberson, her 8-year-old son, Quayshawn, and 21-year-old niece, Jaquetta Roberson, prosecutor Deirdre Daly told a federal jury in her opening statement Monday.
Natal is charged with arson resulting in death, witness tampering and conspiracy to distribute drugs. His father, Hector Morales, is charged with witness tampering and destruction of evidence in connection with the investigation. The men are being tried together.
Their attorneys say the case is based on unreliable witnesses with ulterior motives.
Authorities say Natal set the fire in part as retaliation for failure to pay a drug debt involving someone who lived in another unit in the multifamily house. The fire was set in the middle of the night when 17 residents were sleeping, including young children, pregnant women and grandmothers, Daly said.
“They thought they were safe, secure in their home,” Daly said. “They were completely unaware of the horror that awaited them. The fire was fierce.”
Daly called Wanda Roberson, a mother of six, a hero, saying she desperately awoke her sleeping family.
Prosecutors played a series of frantic 911 calls in which witnesses told police that children were in the house and people were jumping out windows.
The prosecutor portrayed Natal as a drug dealer who was unhappy when customers were short on cash. She said his father served as his driver.
She acknowledged that no one saw Natal in the house the night it was set on fire and there were no fingerprints or DNA linking him to the fire but said a neighbor saw Morales’ blue van nearby.
One of Natal’s confessions was caught on tape by a witness cooperating with authorities, Daly said. She said that witness, a former associate, had had state charges involving a stolen car dismissed after he cooperated with the fire investigation. She also said witnesses had to be relocated to ensure their safety.
Natal’s attorney, Michael Sheehan, acknowledged Natal was involved in drug dealing, but said that he planned to ask the jury at the end of the trial to find his client not guilty in connection with the fire. He said the government’s case was “built on a flawed foundation,” saying witnesses have either a history of lying, axes to grind or received substantial payments from the government.
William Paetzold, attorney for Morales, said Natal’s former girlfriend suddenly changed her account after investigators told her that Natal had another girlfriend.
“She became a scorned woman,” he said.
The government’s star witness cooperated after he was arrested to save himself, Paetzold said. He told the jury they will feel sympathy for the victims of the fire but they should base their verdict on the evidence and he said Morales was innocent.
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