New London — Neighbors on Blinman Street and friends around town were still grappling Saturday with the deaths of two people in the overnight fire that officials say may have been set to cover a murder.
Police Saturday identified Noel Starback, 57, a well-known and well-liked figure in the community, as one of those killed in the suspicious fire Friday night at 36 Blinman St., where Starback lived. Officials on the scene that night said that at least one of the deaths was a homicide.
Police said Starback lived in the home with four others, and that four of the five residents have been accounted for.
The second victim, a woman, has not been identified but neighbors Friday night and throughout the day Saturday said her name was Sherri.
A release Saturday from the office of Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said autopsies would be conducted Monday by the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office to determine the cause and manner of the deaths, and to help identify the second victim.
The State Police Major Crime Squad, the state fire marshal and New London police officers closed Blinman Street Friday night and remained on the scene Saturday until early afternoon, investigating the 8:20 p.m. blaze.
By 1:45 p.m., investigators had left and the street had been reopened.
Lt. J. Paul Vance, state police spokesman, said his office is assisting the investigation but the city’s police department is taking the lead.
One of the residents of the home, who gave his name only as Jerry, spent the night at the Red Roof Inn with his 14-year-old dog, Cowboy, who survived the fire. The home’s other two occupants are known to neighbors only as Julie and John.
Renate Wilson, who lives at 28 Blinman and owns the red brick building there, said she was outside Friday around 6 p.m. when she saw Starback walk by with a blonde woman whom Wilson did not know. Minutes later, Wilson heard yelling from 36 Blinman and saw a young man wearing a white shirt and sunglasses and speaking on a cellphone, walk down Blinman towards Bank Street.
“He seemed upset,” Wilson said of the man, whom she did not know.
The man then walked back towards 36 Blinman, Wilson said, adding that she did not hear or see anything else until she smelled smoke from inside her own home around 8:30 p.m., and went outside and saw the fire and the subsequent response.
Police Chief Margaret Ackley visited the scene Saturday morning, as did City Councilor Wade Hyslop, who serves as the public safety liaison to the council.
David Butler, whose girlfriend, Roberta Whitehead, lives across the street from the fire scene, said that around 9 a.m. Saturday, he saw police remove a body from the home.
Butler said he and Whitehead had spent much of last summer with Starback and Sherri, grilling steaks and “having a good time” on the back deck at 36 Blinman.
He said the home’s interior was incredible: a beach scene, created by Starback, replete with seagulls and a starry sky. The waves were made of plaster of paris and created a three-dimensional effect, Butler said.
“Leonardo da Vinci has nothing on him,” Butler said fondly of his friend.
Starback created the bar tops at the Y-Knot Cafe and at the Bank Street Café, two bars on opposite ends of Bank Street, Butler said.
“Custom made for Barbara Hayes by Noel and John, 2000,” a small brass plaque in the Y-Knot bar reads.
When the Bank Street Café burned down several years ago, Starback rebuilt the whole building and interior, said Jeff Mullen, who owns the bar today.
“It took six months to do it, but he did all the flooring and custom cut the lumber, everything,” Mullen said. “He was just a guy that helped everybody. He was a good soul, he really was.”
Mullen said Starback was an “all-around” handyman who didn’t drive but would walk around town with his toolbox. He said he was sorry to hear the news about his longtime friend.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be as successful as I’ve been,” Mullen said. “He’s probably fixing somebody’s bar up in heaven right now or drawing a line that’s not quite straight.”
Daphne Lee Martin, who owns The Telegraph record store on Golden Street, said she first met Starback when she moved to New London in 2003. At the time, Martin said, she bought and rehabbed downtown properties. Her go-to handyman, was Starback, who had a fantastic sense of humor, she said.
“He’s one of a handful of people that has a key to my house,” Martin said.
Starback liked to draw, including “silly” caricatures and one-panel cartoons. He always portrayed himself as a puppy in those drawings, Martin said.
“He’s worked on so many buildings in New London, they’ll find his cartoons drawn in carpenter pencil on studs all over town when they tear down buildings,” Martin said, laughing at the memory. “Everyone in town knew Noel in some capacity.”
They were “beautiful people,” Butler said of his friends, and “the best neighbors in the world.” Starback, Butler said, was known for his “famous” fruit salad and was always helping out his friends. He frequently let friends that were down on their luck stay at his home, Butler said, or he’d loan them money.
“He’s a really nice guy,” Butler said.