A firefighter on the witness stand broke down as he described coming across human remains amid a third-floor blaze in Fair Haven. Relatives of the fire’s three victims sobbed in the back of the courtroom and held each other tightly.
That was one of several dramatic moments on the opening day of testimony in a triple-murder arson trial.
Father and son Hector Natal and Hector Morales are being tried in U.S. District Court on Church Street.
Natal is charged with setting fire to a house at the corner of Wolcott and Poplar streets in Fair Haven on March 9, 2011. Three people died in the blaze: Wanda Roberson, her son, second-grader Quayshawn Roberson, and Jaqueeta Roberson, another relative. It was one of New Haven’s most horrific murder cases in years.
The government alleges that Natal and his father worked together to sell drugs, and that Natal set the fire because of an uncollected drug debt. Morales allegedly drove a getaway van after the arson, then painted the vehicle to try to prevent people from recognizing it. The pair are also accused of tampering with witnesses to try to evade arrest as cops zeroed in on them.
Natal and Morales have pleaded not guilty to the 11 counts they face.
Relatives of the three victims sat in the gallery during Monday’s court proceedings. One woman wore a shirt with a photo montage of the three who died in the fire, featuring the words “God’s Angels.” She was one of several people who burst into the tears during emotional testimony.
The first tears rolled during the testimony of 911 dispatcher Chris Helland, when prosecuting attorney Deirdre Daly played frantic phone calls from the scene of the fire, at 1:30 a.m. on March 9, 2011.
Emotions ran high in the afternoon when fire department Lt. Robert Celentano took the stand. Here’s what he said he experienced when he arrived at the fire:
Celentano and his crew of three guys were part of the response to the second alarm of the fire, only minutes after the first. They rushed to the scene in Engine 4 from the fire station on Grand Avenue.
Wearing air packs, they entered the house from the back, working their way up to the third floor, dousing flames with a hose. The air was thick with black smoke, with zero visibility. The heat was intense, forcing the firefighters first to bend over, then to get down on their knees as they made it further up.
Arriving at the top of the third floor stairs, the firefighters turned right, spraying water on flames leaping out of two bedrooms. After “darkening down” the blaze in one bedroom, they turned their attention to the second.
Firefighter Patrick Grant was acting as “pipe man” on the front of the hose. Celentano was right behind him. As they entered the second bedroom, Grant said, “I think I’m on top of something.”
Celentano asked if it might be furniture, a couch or something.
“No, it seems a little different,” Grant said. “It might even be a body.”
Celentano ordered everyone to stop. He listened carefully for any sound, then took off his air mask. That’s when the smell hit him.
“I didn’t even have to see it,” Celentano said. He recognized the smell of a body.
At this point in his testimony, several women in the gallery broke down. One, wearing a nurse’s scrubs, let out an audible moan.
Celentano radioed down to the chief, who was supervising the scene from the street outside. “I told him we have a body.”
Celentano and his crew shifted gears, and started carefully searching the room. They soon found a second body, a larger one. Celantano suspected it might be a parent, or a parent holding child.
“A lot of times, they try to clutch the children,” Celentano said. He had to pause for a moment to recompose himself before continuing his testimony.
The firefighters rolled over the body and found no child. They kept checking the room and were on their way out when Celentano spotted intestines near the first body. The firefighters discovered the remains of third victim, “the little boy,” Celentano said.
Several women sobbed and left the courtroom.
Defense attorneys had no cross-examination questions for Celentano.
Out The Window
Jasmine Roberson (pictured) took the witness stand later that afternoon. She testified that she lived in the apartment with her 1-year-old son along with a number of other family members. She was pregnant at the time of the fire.
Here’s what Jasmine said she experienced during the fire:
She went to bed at around 12:30 a.m., dozed off, and woke up a short time later when she heard Wanda yelling for everyone to get up. She grabbed her son, who had been sleeping with her on the third floor in one of two bedrooms on that floor. Wanda and Quayshawn had been sleeping in the other one.
As Jasmine headed down the stairs, she saw Wanda behind her. But Wanda never arrived on the second floor. Jasmine found her way out blocked by flames on the second floor. She threw her son out a second-floor bedroom, into the arms of neighbors on the ground below. She jumped down after him. Several other family members made it to safety.
U.S. Attorney Michael Gustafson asked Jasmine if she knows Natal. She said she knows him as “Boom-Boom,” a street name. She related a story about her son’s first birthday party, in July 2010:
Family and friends were holding a “SpongeBob” themed cookout in the backyard of their house on Wolcott Street. Natal was walking down the street lighting off M-80s, powerful firecrackers. Jasmine’s uncle got into an argument with Natal, who put an M-80 into a pink toy Jeep on the street and exploded it. The police showed up, but Natal had left the scene.
As the day’s testimony wrapped up at 3 p.m., one family member offered a one-line statement in the hallway outside the courtroom: “We just want justice.”