Brookline arson yields mystery. Not who did it, but why?
Cellphone calls, texts lead to suspect, but motive murky
They were just two of many emergency 911 calls on July 26, one suburban and the other in Boston, three miles apart and seemingly unrelated.
In the Chestnut Hill section of Brookline, a fire fueled by accelerants quickly engulfed an unfinished home on Spooner Road, a developer's $2 million dream turned nightmare after three state courts declared it should never have been built.
Forty-five minutes later in a Jamaica Plain condominium, paramedics and police officers found 29-year-old Stephen J. McCann, badly burned, writhing in pain, much of his skin peeling off, wrapped in a sheet in a room reeking of gasoline.
It was not a confession, an informant's tip or eyewitness accounts that led to McCann's quick arrest on arson charges. It was the trove of incriminating evidence on the troubled ex-Marine's cellphone. It pinpointed his location near the house when the fire began. It stored text messages saying he was about to make a large sum of money, that he was about to do something he didn't want discovered, that he hoped there would be no proof.
That quick police work, however, has left police, prosecutors and a Norfolk County grand jury with a low-tech riddle: Why — and perhaps for whom — did McCann allegedly set the house afire? Could it have been the random act of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? Or was it somehow related to a seven-year legal battle between the three developers and Spooner Road residents that soured everyone involved?
On Spooner Road, the swiftness with which the neighborhood eyesore went up in flames did not come as a shock to some.
"Everyone was kind of jokingly saying, "Is someone going to burn it down?' " said Philip D. Kousoubris, who purchased a home on the street two years ago. "But to actually go through with that in a nice neighborhood in a suburb of Boston that's historic is kind of hard to believe."
According to extensive police reports obtained by the Globe, Brookline Police investigators believe McCann was "receiving a large payment'' for torching the house. The police also noted that there was an $800,000 insurance policy on the house, but McCann's lawyer has said his client has no connection to the three developers, and the Globe's examination of public databases contains no hint that McCann knew any of the three men.
According to corporate, property, court, and town records of the extensive legal fight over the construction, the ill-fated development was a partnership involving Timothy J. Kelleher of Littleton, Alan F. Kaplan of Brookline, and Denis P. Cronin, owner of a Westwood construction company.
Kaplan is well-known in Brookline as the owner of the Village Smokehouse in Brookline Village. He and Kelleher are partners in several other real estate ventures, according to corporate records examined by the Globe. Cronin and Kelleher declined to be interviewed. Max D. Stern, who is Kaplan's attorney, said his client "had nothing to do with the fire.''
The mystery has yet another supporting player: McCann had been doing odd jobs for Jody Pattison, who has a Brookline real estate agency. And he was staying temporarily with Pattison. And minutes after the fire was set, McCann sent texts to Pattison seeking help. But Pattison has been cooperating with police, and insists he had only been trying to help an ex-Marine with mental health problems.
As a crime scene, Spooner Road is miscast. Its spacious homes have housed the affluent for more than a century. The road is now part of a historic district and many of its homes sell for $2 million or more. Police are called rarely, and even then the calls are likely to be for home alarms triggered by accident or complaints about telephone scammers.
That all changed on a rainy Friday in July.
The night before, according to the extensive police investigative reports, McCann confided in a friend by text: "I may be coming into some capital soon." On Friday afternoon, he texted another friend, saying: "If you ever have to do something stupid, do it alone & never tell anyone.'' Two hours before the fire, a reassuring text to a girlfriend in Maine: "I'm fine. I'll be even better if there is no proof of anything.''
At the Cabot Estates in Jamaica Plain, where McCann had been staying temporarily, surveillance video shows McCann's car being driven away just after 8 p.m., police detectives found.
The first 911 call reporting the fire came in at 8:58 p.m. But three minutes earlier, Brookline police received the first of two calls from neighbors who spotted a man fleeing Spooner Road, shirtless and crying in pain.
At 9:02, a call was made from McCann's cellphone to Pattison. But the call appeared to be inadvertent: There was no message, only McCann mumbling, crying, and screaming in pain about his fingers. It was a message Pattison did not hear until later that evening, according to police documents.
Also at 9:02, McCann sent Pattison a text: "Need you.'' Then he immediately sent another, one police said did not go through. It said: "I have never needed you more than I need you right now.''
At 9:22, Pattison texted McCann: "Call me!!!!!!'' "Now!!!'' At 9:24, the surveillance video showed McCann's car being driven back into Cabot Estates. Minutes later, another man who was staying there called Pattison to tell him to come home.
McCann left yet another technological footprint that may be far more damaging. Assistant District Attorney Carolyn Hely disclosed in court that GPS tracking data places his cellphone in close proximity to Spooner Road at the time the fire started.
McCann, who was hospitalized for 11 weeks after suffering burns over 25 percent of his body, has been indicted on arson charges by the Norfolk grand jury. If convicted, he faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
When a haggard-looking McCann pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on Nov. 6, his court-appointed attorney, Larry Tipton, insisted that McCann accidentally set himself afire miles away when he lit a cigarette after using gasoline to wash paint off himself.
Tipton said that the former Marine reservist, who spent nine months in Afghanistan, had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. According to police reports, McCann had been abusing cocaine and alcohol. His wife has had a restraining order against him since May.
Years before McCann allegedly drove into the neighborhood, the site of the fire had been a place neighbors remember fondly.
For decades, the lot at 71 Spooner Road was a forested side yard to a six-bedroom white Colonial that was built in 1900. But in 2004, Kelleher, Cronin, and Kaplan purchased the home for $2.4 million, intending to subdivide the property and build a home on the quarter-acre side yard. They sold the white Colonial for $1.5 million.
At first, meetings with the developer were cordial, recalled John G. Nimick, who has lived on the street for 22 years.
"Sure, did we all on Spooner miss having that lovely pasture that was there where wild turkeys used to spawn or whatever wild turkeys do? I mean yeah, you always sort of bemoan the loss of land," said Nimick. "But it was totally understood that it was legal — if it was legal — and you would only hope the developers would build a nice house."
On April 8, 2005, the town's building commissioner issued a permit for construction of the house. But after neighbors saw the building plans, homeowners at 61 and 91 Spooner Road asked the town to rescind the permit, asserting the developers planned to build a house that was too large for the lot. On May 31, the commissioner rebuffed the challenge.
Six months later, exterior construction had been completed. That is when Brookline's Zoning Board of Appeals decided the new house was indeed too large. The board determined that the plans labeled a large second-floor area as "non-habitable attic space'' when it was intended to be the home's master bedroom suite. The board rescinded the building permit and ordered a halt to construction.
Between late 2005 and March 2012, the dispute found a home in the court system: There was a trial in Land Court in December 2007. That court's decision, in April 2009, went against the developers. The next stop was the state Appeals Court, which ruled against the developers in November 2010. In March 2012, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed.
A house that might have fetched $2 million became a white elephant, a long-running drain on the finances of the developers and a visible irritant in an otherwise idyllic neighborhood.
"It was making everyone anxious about property values, general appearance of the neighborhood — even walking past the house and riding a bike past it was difficult," Kousoubris said. "It was unkempt and it was just embarrassing, the whole thing."
For the three developers, the financial drain continues. After the SJC decision last year, the town ordered them to demolish the structure, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars. When they did not, Town Counsel Jennifer Dopazo Gilbert and Associate Town Counsel John Buchheit filed a new lawsuit asking the Massachusetts Land Court to issue an order for the demolition.
The Land Court has yet to rule. But a month before the fire, the developers suffered a procedural reversal when the court refused to dismiss the suit.
For the neighborhood, the fire may have hastened the day when the turkeys can return to their longtime neighborhood sanctuary.
With the demolition dispute languishing in Land Court, the fire gave the town the power to declare the site a safety hazard, which it has done, and hire a demolition company of its own to clear the property — at what would be a substantially higher cost to Kelleher, Kaplan, and Cronin.
That decision had the desired effect. On Friday, Cronin came into Brookline Town Hall and applied for a permit for his own demolition contractor to do the work.
McCann's alleged motive remains a puzzle. Many people were unhappy with the eyesore the Spooner Road house had become, but no one seems to have benefitted from its destruction. Pattison, McCann's temporary landlord who has cooperated with police, said he is dumbfounded.
"I was just trying to help a Marine veteran, help him get back on his feet," Pattison said. "He has zero criminal record. This is so out of character."
Pattison acknowledged that he has testified before the Norfolk grand jury, but declined to say what he told them. "I don't want to bury him any further, but they have overwhelming evidence against him, a lot of evidence."