A 12-year-old boy drew peace signs and fidgeted in boredom Wednesday as former neighbors tearfully described fleeing the fire he set at their apartment complex.
The blaze killed five children, a teenage girl and two adults, all Mexican immigrants, in the Portland suburb of Aloha. Ray Martin DeFord, who has admitted setting the fire, is charged with felony murder, manslaughter and arson.
If Judge Timothy P. Alexander finds him guilty, he could be held in state custody until he turns 25.
Linda Briggs choked with emotion as she testified about how she and her two children awoke in terror on June 28, 1996, with exploding windows above them and flashing lights outside.
Upstairs, Gloria Mannen had to jump out of her window to escape the flames and smoke. Firefighter Douglas Snader said the fire was so hot it melted the plastic face mask on his helmet. He said it was the most intense blaze in his 16 years of experience.
Throughout the testimony, DeFord doodled, clicked his pen and paid little attention. At one point, he played tic-tac-toe with one of his attorneys, Charles Fryer, who later had to quietly scold the boy for getting ink on his new suit while DeFord was coloring peace signs he’d drawn with felt-tip markers.
The key question in the trial is whether the boy could have foreseen the consequences when he began playing with newspapers, rubbing alcohol and matches that night.
DeFord’s other attorney, Jennifer Harrington, said in her opening statement that he has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old and is borderline retarded.
Prosecutor Robert Hermann called the situation a “great tragedy,” but said he would prove the boy intentionally started the fire and that he knew what he was doing.
Briggs said she spoke with DeFord one morning at the motel where apartment residents stayed after the fire.
He told her: ” ‘The only thing that can make fire move so fast is alcohol.’ I thought that was kind of peculiar,” Briggs said. She reported the conversation to one of the fire investigators.
After DeFord admitted setting the fire, she saw him again.
“He didn’t show any remorse. He seemed glad to be staying at a hotel and eating at restaurants. It was fun for him,” Briggs said.
Mannen said the motel’s fire alarm went off several times while the fire victims were staying there. After the third alarm, she found DeFord leaning on the wall next to it. He told her he set the alarm off accidentally, she said.
As the witnesses testified, a translator spoke in Spanish to relatives of the victims in the back of the tiny courtroom.
Rigoberto Trejo, the brother of victim Virginia Aguilar said through an interpreter that the family believes DeFord was very well aware of what he was doing and the consequences.
Hermann called two arson investigators to testify in the afternoon. Both Detective Gene Whitaker of the Oregon State Police and Special Agent John Comrey of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said they believed evidence at the fire was consistent with allegations that DeFord crumpled newspaper, set it afire, and threw rubbing alcohol into the flames.
The two investigators noted that attempts to extinguish the blaze by throwing flour on the flames would only feed the fire and make it worse. Investigators believe DeFord tried to douse the fire with flour after setting the paper afire in a pie tin.
Whatever the outcome of the trial, DeFord likely will remain under state care for years. After living with his mentally retarded mother and abusive father - now in a New Mexico prison - the boy is undergoing treatment at the Christie School for troubled youths in Lake Oswego.
Killed in the blaze were Jeremias Aguilar, 37; his wife, Virginia, 26; their four children, Karen, 10, Jacqueline, 8, Agustin, 7, and Patricia, 5; and their neighbors and distant relations, Francisca Aguilar, 16, and her 3-month-old niece, Selena Chavez.
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