KEENE, New Hampshire — Nearly 25 years after four members of a Keene family perished in a fire, lawyers for the man charged in their deaths say a witness can place David McLeod with her for 45 minutes before the fire started.
McLeod — arrested in 2010 and charged with four counts of 2nd-degree murder — is the most prominent of the state's cold case defendants to go on trial, and his case could prove to be the most challenging. Witness accounts then and now conflict sharply, McLeod's lawyers told jurors during opening arguments Tuesday.
Prosecutors told jurors that the 57-year-old McLeod threatened to burn down the two story apartment house before the fire, bragged and laughed about it as the fire raged and admitted setting it afterward.
Killed in the fire were 49-year-old Carl Hine, his 26-year-old wife, Lori, and daughters Sara, 12 and Lillian, who was four months old. Fifteen other residents escaped the blaze.
"It wasn't the flames of the fire that killed the murder victims here," prosecutor Peter Hinckley told jurors. "They couldn't escape the fire's smoke and deadly gases. Their deaths were not quick. They were not painless."
Hinckley said McLeod set the fire to get back at his former girlfriend, who still lived in the building at 88 High Street, and to get even with other residents he felt had given him a hard time.
Defense Attorney Meredith Lugo told jurors that McLeod was at a party in Ed Boussieres' first-floor apartment — seated on a couch alongside Wanda Ford — for nearly an hour before the fire started. One thing defense and prosecution agree on is that McLeod was very drunk that night.
"To accept the state's theory, you have to find that David leaves the gathering at Ed's, sneaks away from Wanda and everyone else who's there, walked around the building, climbs up a fire escape. It's a cold January night and David McLeod is very drunk," Lugo said. "He sets a fire in Sandy Walker's apartment and then goes back and joins the people who wronged him. That didn't happen."
Lugo said Ford provided McLeod's alibi during sworn testimony at a court proceeding in February 1989, but said cold case investigators didn't have the file with that testimony in it.
"David's words and actions the night of the fire were reprehensible," Lugo said, of McLeod's glee and cheering on of the fire. She said those were the actions of a "drunken fool."
Lori Hina's mother and other family members were in the courtroom, but did not want to comment. McLeod's mother also was present, and declined to comment.
Former Keene patrolman Joseph Collins choked back tears as he described crawling into the Hina's apartment on his belly to avoid the dense smoke, after people on the sidewalk said residents were trapped inside. He heard nothing and didn't see the broken window those outside had pointed to, then smoke drove him out. Unbeknownst to Collins, the Hina's apartment was an odd shape with a back room.
"Four people died that night," Collins said, his voice breaking. "I was the first, and probably the last one who could have got to them."
Testimony in what is expected to be a three-week trial resumes Wednesday.
McLeod has been in custody since his arrest July 2010 — a year after the cold case unit was formed.