Lawyer Says Accused Arsonist Should Be Allowed To Possess Lighters & Matches - Because He’s A Smoker

James McChesney (Mug Shot)

The lawyer for a man accused of setting multiple fires in downtown St. Johnsbury last week told the court on Monday that it would be a crime to release his client on the condition that he not possess lighters or matches while the case is pending.

“Mr. McChesney is a heavy smoker,” said defense attorney Sam Swope during the criminal arraignment of arson suspect James McChesney, 40. “To say that Mr. McChesney cannot possess lighters or matches would mean that he could not possess cigarettes. He’s addicted to cigarettes. Therefore, any prohibition that would prevent him from lighting cigarettes is actually a criminalization of addiction.”

But Judge Michael J. Harris imposed the condition anyway due to the number of fires McChesney is accused of setting on Friday night and the court’s lack of clear information about McChesney’s mental health condition. The judge also ordered McChesney to only be released under 24-hour curfew at a court-approved residence.

“Once he’s out of the facility (jail) - as he’s released to a curfew location - he can have others come and light cigarettes for him,” said Judge Harris. “He can also look into electronic cigarettes if he has an issue with addiction to nicotine…I do have concerns about him possessing a lighter or matches. “

McChesney pleaded not guilty at arraignment to felony charges of 3rd-degree arson, 2nd-degree arson and two misdemeanor charges of unlawful mischief. He remains in pretrial detention at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury. Prosecutors say more charges are possible.

The judge also ordered McChesney to sign for a $5,000 Unsecured Appearance Bond once he is released to ensure he shows up at future court hearings and to undergo a mental health screening.

McChesney was initially accused of walking around town shirtless and using a pail of yellow construction grade adhesive gel to set five arson fires on Portland Street, Washington Avenue and in the Depot Square area before being apprehended by St. Johnsbury Police on Eastern Avenue.

When McChesney was arrested, police said they found him with a lighter, a hunting knife and a can of commercial adhesive marked as “flammable” which matched the substance located at the fire scenes.

And according to court documents, the investigation into the Friday night arson spree is growing after police received two more reports of fire damage around town.

On Saturday, police received a report of burn marks on the handicapped ramp at Cherry Street Play Care located at 68 Cherry Street.

“I removed a sample from the burnt area and bagged it as evidence,” wrote St. Johnsbury Police Corporal Steven Hartwell in his report. “I also found the same substance unburnt just below the charred spot…It should be noted that the unburnt sample was similar in color and smelled like the substance McChesney was carrying at the time of his arrest.”

Police also met with St. Johnsbury residents Brooklyn Dye, 26, and Antino Pepper, 24, who provided police with a description of the suspect Friday night after McChesney allegedly set fire to the St. Johnsbury Welcome Center in Depot Square.

Dye told investigators that she believed that McChesney had also set fire to the front steps of her apartment building at 390 Portland Street.

“She showed me a burn spot on the steps,” wrote Ofc Hartwell. “I obtained a sample of the charred substance and it appeared to be the same substance I had obtained from the other sites. I also found a large spot of yellow rubbery substance that had dried on the cement just to the left of the steps…In obtaining that sample the odor was the same as the substance found on McChesney upon his arrest.”

390 Portland Street is a 10 unit residential apartment building, according to court records

Police also learned that Dye and Pepper had extinguished the Welcome Center fire on Friday night with a can of soda.

“We were walking out of Dominos and saw a fire at the Welcome Center,” said Pepper, in a sworn statement he gave to police. “I put it out with my Sprite. The guy with no shirt and a bucket chased us with (a) knife till police were called then he ran.”

If convicted of all the charges McChesney faces a possible sentence of up to nine years in prison and $2,500 in fines.

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