Contact: Beth Stone
BROCKTON – The Massachusetts Appeals Court has affirmed the second degree felony murder conviction of a woman who set a fire in a Brockton triple-decker that left one woman dead and children and tenants jumping for their lives from the burning building, Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz announced today.
On March 10, 2010, a Plymouth County jury convicted Chiteara Thomas, now 34, of First Degree Murder, Arson and 13 counts of Attempted Murder for setting the deadly fire in July, 2006 at 779 Montello Street, which left 28 year-old Olinda Calderon dead and injured many others. In September, 2014, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Thomas’s conviction for arson, but reversed the other convictions. At that time, DA Cruz announced that he would re-try Thomas. At the retrial on May 13, 2017, Thomas was convicted of Second Degree Felony Murder. Thomas appealed her conviction to the Massachusetts Appeals Court raising several issues, including that her second degree felony murder conviction was based on legally insufficient evidence, as well as a host of other claims including that the denial of her motion to reduce the verdict was an abuse of discretion and that the holding in Commonwealth v. Brown regarding felony murder should apply to her case retroactively.
Today, the Appeals Court issued their decision determining that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s verdict of second degree felony murder. The Appeals Court rejected the defendant’s claim that Ms. Calderon’s death was not the natural and probable consequence of her actions, noting that the evidence at her second trial was substantially the same as at her first trial, and that the “natural and continuous sequence” of the fire caused Ms. Calderon’s death from smoke inhalation. The Appeals Court also found that the “merger doctrine” was inapplicable to the felony-murder conviction where the predicate felony was arson.
The Appeals Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial judge abused his discretion by failing to reduce the verdict to involuntary manslaughter. The Court lastly found that holding in Brown should not be applied retroactively.
“We are pleased that the Massachusetts Appeals Court has affirmed the conviction of Chiteara Thomas,” DA Cruz said. “Because of a feud with a tenant, when Ms. Thomas set fire to a building full of sleeping families she had the intent to kill. Olinda Calderon lost her life, her baby girl lost her mother, and survivors suffered severe injuries. The heroic efforts of Brockton firefighters saved the lives of many, and continuing on with this case has been about getting justice for Ms. Calderon, her family, and the survivors of that nightmarish morning.”
On July 6, 2006 at 5:45 a.m., Brockton Fire responded to 779 Montello Street for report of a fire. Upon arrival, firefighters found the triple-decker, multi-family residence engulfed in flames. Brockton firefighters rescued three female victims who, at the time the fire started, were sleeping inside the third floor apartment. They were identified as a one-month-old baby girl, and two women, ages 46 and 21. The three victims were transported to Boston hospitals with burns, lacerations and severe smoke inhalation. Brockton firefighters also located Ms. Calderon, in the third floor apartment. She was unconscious and suffered severe burns to her body. She was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital where she was pronounced dead the following day. An autopsy revealed that she died from smoke inhalation and thermal burns sustained in the fire.
At the time of the fire, there were seven people sleeping inside the second floor apartment. A passerby, who saw the house on fire, ran into the burning house yelling for the people to get out. He then positioned himself under a second floor window and caught all three children who were dropped down to him by their parents from the second floor. He then broke the fall of the other second floor victims as they jumped from the second floor apartment. The second floor victims were all transported to various hospitals where they were treated for shock, smoke inhalation, broken bones and lacerations.
The investigation revealed that Thomas had been involved in an ongoing dispute with a tenant of the first floor apartment. Thomas had been arrested by Brockton Police on July 3, 2006 for trespassing at the house and witnesses reported that she had broken several windows in the first floor apartment and had threatened to “torch the place.”
Witnesses also reported seeing Thomas travel to that address during the night of July 5, 2006, and just moments before the fire, a witness observed her reach into one of the windows she had previously broken, and then flee the scene. Within minutes, witnesses saw fire engulf the entire dwelling. Massachusetts State Police Troopers assigned to the State Police Fire and Explosion Investigation Section of the State Fire Marshall’s Office investigated the cause and origin of the fire and determined that it was intentionally set by an open flame igniting curtains at the window.
Assistant District Attorney Laurie Yeshulas handled the case before the Appeals Court while Deputy First Assistant District Attorney Christine Kiggen and Assistant District Attorney Keara Kelley prosecuted the case at trial.