GREENWICH TIME - MARCH 23, 1996
Arson Trial Clears Owner
By Jonathan Lucas - Staff Writer
Nearly eight years after fire fighters first responded to what they labeled a suspicious backcountry blaze, a jury has exonerated the homeowner, Donald Golden, in a civil trial.
Golden was sued by his former insurer, Pacific Indemnity, for more than $2 million on charges of arson and insurance fraud stemming from the Dec. 2, 1988, fire that gutted his 12 Stallion Trail home.
Following a three-week trial in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, on Thursday, a panel of six jurors found in favor of Golden. The jury had deliberated for four hours over evidence that included two 55 gallon drums of gasoline, a six gallon gasoline container and a rope allegedly used as a wick, as well as testimony from witnesses including Greenwich Fire Marshall, Joseph Benoit.
In an investigation conducted immediately after the blaze, Benoit determined the fire had been deliberately set in at least two places in the furnace room of the unoccupied home. However, no criminal charges were filed in the case, for lack of evidence.
"Juries do funny things," Benoit said yesterday after learning of the verdict. "There's nothing you can really do about it, especially 7 1/2 years after. The evidence showed it was arson and if they didn't see that, there's noting I can do about it."
The 10,000 square-foot luxury home, then valued at $2.9 million, had been on the market for two months prior to the fire and public records revealed that Golden had obtained a $1 million second mortgage on the property five months prior before it had been put on the market.
Although Golden could not be reached for comment, his attorney, Dennis D'Antonio, said much of the case rested on the testimony of public officials such as Benoit and Greenwich police officers.
"The most significant part of the case was when Benoit testified that the gas contained 150 feet of clothesline intended as a wick," said D'Antonio, a New York lawyer who lives in Greenwich.
D'Antonio said he contended at trial that the evidence was planted, by the fire marshal's office and that police assisted Benoit by testifying that they found the gas containers with rope inside.
However, D'Antonio said that testimony was contradicted by Capt. Luke Frangione, training officer of the Greenwich Fire Department, who testified that the containers did not have rope inside.
"Benoit planted evidence," said D'Antonio. "The rope did not show up until the following day. And when the jury was asked if they believe the Greenwich fire marshal's office or the homeowner, they found for the home owner."
Benoit vigorously denied the charge.
"That was D'Antonio's ploy in the courtroom," he said. "If he wants to charge me with that that's fine, but I don't think he proved it."
Deputy Police Chief Peter Robbins, captain of the Greenwich detective division at the time of the fire, said yesterday he clearly remembers the scene and he dismissed accusations that police officers lied.
"That's totally untrue that the fire marshal or anybody else put the clothesline in the barrel," said Robbins. "That's ridiculous statement, the police officers weren't lying and they don't lie. They all work for me and I know their credibility and their integrity---I was there and I saw (the clothesline) there myself."
Franklin D. Tell, the attorney representing the plaintiff, however said he found the jury's verdict outrageous.
"Now I know how Marcia Clark felt," Tell said, referring to the O. J. Simpson prosecutor. "It's an outrage. It's very disconcerting how easily juries believe the worst about public officials in the face of overwhelming evidence."
Tell said the jurors disregarded testimony linking Golden to financial schemes and physical evidence indicating Golden had been the last person in the house. He noted that the house was locked when fire fighters arrived, indicating it was unlikely a burglar had started the blaze."
"The jury not only overlooked, but disregarded the physical structure of the house," said Tell, a partner in a New York law firm. "The jury so completely disregarded the evidence."
Tell said it was too soon to say whether the insurance company would appeal.