March 28, 2010 in City

Deadly ’78 fire case reopened

New York police question Okanogan mother of victims
Verena Dobnik Associated Press
 
FILE Associated Press photo

In this June 3, 1978, photo, Virginia Gratto, left, looks at her burned purse after it was removed from her fire-damaged apartment in Cohoes, N.Y.
(Full-size photo)

NEW YORK – An Okanogan, Wash., woman who lost seven children and her husband in a 1978 arson at their home near Albany was questioned again this week as investigators put renewed effort into solving the case.

No one was ever charged for setting the fire 32 years ago in Cohoes, N.Y.

Detectives traveled to Okanogan and spent several hours Wednesday questioning Virginia Utigard, the sole survivor, said Cohoes Mayor John T. McDonald. Then 29 and pregnant, Utigard was the mother of the seven children, ages 4 months to 9 years, who died. Her husband, John Gratto, also perished.

Utigard’s escape from the burning home has long been viewed with suspicion, said retired Albany County District Attorney Sol Greenberg. Six weeks after the blaze, she moved across the country and married an apple farmer.

A call from the Associated Press to her home in Okanogan went unanswered on Saturday, but KXLY-TV in Spokane spoke to her this week.

She told the TV station she is innocent and that she recently was pressured into signing a false confession.

The night of the 1978 fire “was the worst night of my life,” she said. She said her 10-year relationship with her husband had been abusive but that she loved her children “dearly and would never hurt them no matter how miserable a person is.” She said she had “nothing to hide because I didn’t do it.”

Heather Orth, spokeswoman for current District Attorney David Soares in Albany, said his office was involved in the renewed investigation but had no comment on the case.

Greenberg told the AP on Saturday that his late assistant, Daniel Dwyer, kept a sign on his Albany desk for years that read: “Remember the Grattos.”

Speaking from his home, Greenberg described Utigard’s behavior after the fire as “not normal.” He said Utigard was treated for smoke inhalation at a hospital, then went back to the house to look for her purse.

At the time, she told authorities that she had tried to save her 4-month-old twins, Greenberg said. “What about the other five kids?” he asked.

A grand jury was convened in the case, but nothing came of it, Greenberg said. He emphasized that the circumstantial details “don’t mean she did it.”

The prosecutor said his office kept working on the case with investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local and state police.

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