Returning home late at night, Margaret Batts spotted her neighbor’s minivan parked in an unusual place. Two masked men climbed into it and drove off, just before the house across the street burst into flames.
She couldn’t see the men’s faces, but she recognized them by their bodies, she told a jury Tuesday. She said the two men were her neighbors from across the hall—Hector Natal and Hector Morales.
Batts recounted that story under oath in federal court on Tuesday. She is one of three star witnesses anchoring the government’s case against Natal and Morales. The father and son are accused of a total of 11 charges including arson, witness tampering and drug charges. Tuesday was the second day of their trial.
Prosecutors say Natal set fire to 48-50 Wolcott St., a house at the corner Wolcott and Poplar streets in Fair Haven, early on the morning of March 9, 2011. Three people perished in the blaze: Wanda Roberson, her 21-year-old niece Jaquetta Roberson, and her 8-year-old son Quayshawn Roberson.
Natal set the blaze in because of an unpaid drug debt, prosecutors charge. He and his father are also accused of trying to cover up evidence of the crime, and intimidate witnesses who testified against them to a grand jury. Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.
Prosecutors say Morales drove the getaway van after his son set the fire. Batts was the first person to offer eyewitness testimony in court about the alleged getaway.
Court adjourned before Batts could finish her testimony; the defense team is expected to cross-examine her on Wednesday.
Batts, who’s 43, took the stand on Tuesday afternoon wearing a paisley top, her black and red braids pulled back in a ponytail. Here’s what she testified to:
Batts lived at 151 Poplar St., a few houses away from the site of the fire, for four years. At the time of the blaze, she lived there with six of her eight kids on the second floor, across the hallway from the Morales-Natal family.
“We was friends,” Batts said. “We would help each other out.”
Batts knew Natal as a drug dealer. She would often sit on the porch, or at her bedroom window and watch Natal at work.
“A car would pull up and he would go to the car and hand him something and in exchange the driver would hand him something,” Batts said. She said she didn’t see exactly what was exchanged “but I knew it was drugs.”
A few days before the fire, Batts was coming home when she found Natal and a man named Tobius—who lived in the house that burned—arguing in the hallway. “As I was coming up the stairs, I heard something about money and they seemed very upset,” Batts said.
On the evening of March 8, 2011, Batts had bad chest pains and went to Yale-New Haven Hospital with her boyfriend. She was checked out by doctors and then took a cab home with her boyfriend.
As she got out of the cab, she saw something strange. “I noticed Hector Morales’ van parked on the corner, and it was running,” Batts said. The van’s lights were off, but she saw smoke coming out the tail pipe.
The car was parked near 48 Wolcott St. “He never parks his van there,” she said.
Batts said she could see the van well even though it was dark. She could tell it was Morales’ two-tone minivan, which she had seen him driving many times.
“After I saw the van parked there, I saw two guys dressed all in black with black face-masks round the corner,” Batts said. The men had black gloves, black hoodies, and black masks. All she could see of them was their foreheads.
“Based on their build, height, and width, did they appear to be familiar to you?” asked Deputy U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly.
“Yes,” Batts said.
“Could you otherwise ID who those two men were?”
“Who were they?”
“I believed them to be Morales and Natal,” Batts said.
Batts, who was still standing on the porch of her house, saw the van drive away. He told her boyfriend what she’d seen, but he just told her to mind her business and get inside. She found her kids still awake on a school night and put them to bed. Then she put on her favorite gown and got into bed herself. That’s when she heard screaming. She looked out the window and saw the house on the corner, with flames ripping out of the second floor.
“They were raging,” she said.
Batts is set to return to the stand Wednesday morning to finish her story.