Judge Won't Sign Warrant for Fatal Pawcatuck Blaze

Stonington — In the early morning of July 3, 2007, Joy Blinn turned on a burner on the gas stove in her first-floor Pawcatuck apartment and used the flame to light a cigarette. She left some freshly laundered clothes on top of the stove.

Five minutes later, while she worked on her computer in an adjacent room, she heard an explosion and saw flames on the stove and in the wall behind it. The fire ripped through the three-story house at 5 Cherry St., killing 62-year-old John Hanson, who lived in the second-floor apartment.

Blinn said she did not leave the burner on. Instead, she blames an oven that she said had been going on and off by itself over the previous three months, although she had not notified her landlord.

Following an investigation by Pawcatuck Fire Marshal Kevin Burns, the state fire marshal's office and police, the New London State's Attorney's Office submitted a warrant application that would have charged Blinn, 37, with criminally negligent homicide.

New London Superior Court Judge James Abrams, though, refused to sign the warrant.

Burns, whose office inspects about 1,000 apartments and buildings each year, was clearly frustrated and upset with the judge's decision this week, especially since 10 days before the fire his office cited the house's owner, Sebastian Laria, for unsafe conditions in Blinn's and Hanson's apartments and ordered them fixed.

During an inspection, Assistant Fire Marshal Kevin Riley had found a 3-foot pile of laundry wedged between the refrigerator and a wall in Blinn's apartment, which she was told about. A large amount of combustible items, which Riley said constituted a fire hazard, was found in Hanson's apartment. A broken smoke detector was immediately replaced.

“We try our best to perform the inspections as required by state law,” Burns said. “We can only do our part. It's up to the residents to heed our warnings.”

Burns also was upset that the state attorney's office rebuffed his repeated attempts to meet and discuss the case.

Burns is worried that the apartment where Blinn now lives at 25 Noyes Ave. recently had some of the same violations as the house that burned on Cherry Street. During a Dec. 5 inspection that occurred when Blinn reported problems with her new stove, Burns found garbage placed next to the oven, a window in her daughter's room blocked by furniture, another exit blocked, and wrong-sized fuses installed in the apartment. A battery was found under one of the burners on the stove. Burns said he temporarily had the gas supply shut off and made sure the violations were corrected and the stove fixed.

Blinn said Monday she still has problems with the pilot light on the stove overheating.

“I'm moving because I don't feel safe here,” she said.

Abrams and Detective Sgt. David Knowles declined to discuss the case this week. Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Peter McShane did not respond to phone messages.

Blinn said Monday she did not know why police were trying to charge her when it was the stove blowing up that started the fire.

“I'm not a moron,” she said. “I'd never put clothes on a lit burner.”

Blinn said fire officials are trying to blame her for the fire because they were unable to save Hanson.

“I absolutely believe John would be alive today if they had done their job,” she said.

Fire Chief Thomas Long and Burns have said the thick smoke, a bureau that partially blocked a window, and the large amount of clutter in Hanson's apartment prevented firefighters from reaching Hanson before he died from smoke inhalation.

To find Blinn guilty of criminally negligent homicide, the state would not have to prove that she intended to cause Hanson's death. Instead, it would have to show that she failed “to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that a death could occur.

It would also have to show that her failure to perceive the risk constituted a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would observe in the same situation.

In his report, a state's attorney's office investigator said the stove was not examined by investigators and that it is in the custody of the insurance company. It also stated that Hanson failed to clear out his apartment and that his body was found by a window that had been blocked, inhibiting rescue attempts.

In a handwritten note to police on Dec. 19, McShane reported that Abrams had refused to issue the warrant and that the judge “could not get past the criminal intent.” The charge, though, does not involve intent to commit a crime. McShane complimented police for preparing a well-written warrant.

The warrant application states that the state fire marshal concluded the fire originated on the first floor and “the ignition source is more probable than not the stove.”

Blinn said that in the three months before the fire, the oven would suddenly go on, heating up the kitchen to high temperatures. She also said that when the burners would not light she would hit them with a pan, something she did the night of the fire. She said it had slipped her mind to tell her landlord about the problems.

Blinn said she always placed clothes on the stove because it was next to the washer and dryer.

While the clothes did catch fire that night, she said the majority of the fire was in the back of the stove and not in the front where she had moved the clothes.

When the fire broke out she said she grabbed her 3-year-old daughter and went into the hall yelling for tenants on the second and third floor to get out.

“I saved three people,” she said, “and now they want to charge me.”
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