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Notorious Worcester fire case informed judge’s decision in Carter verdict


In issuing his guilty verdict, the judge in the Michelle Carter case referred to two prior criminal cases as precedence for his involuntary manslaughter ruling. One of those cases stemmed from a deadly 1999 fire that killed six Worcester firefighters.

The case, well-known to Massachusetts residents, involved a homeless couple who were thought to be living in the abandoned Worcester Cold Storage warehouse. When a fire broke out, two Worcester firefighters, believing the couple were trapped inside, ran into the windowless brick building. They became disoriented in the smoky, maze-like structure, prompting four other firefighters to follow them inside in an attempted rescue. All six men ultimately died.


The couple, Thomas Levesque and Julie Ann King, who authorities later learned were not inside the charred building, admitted to police that they accidentally started the fire when they knocked over a lit candle during an argument. As the flames begin to spread, they escaped, but never paused to call the fire department, despite having a cellphone and passing by several pay phones. They also stopped to browse at a record store.

That failure to alert authorities resulted in involuntary manslaughter charges, similar to the charges brought against the owner of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston that claimed 492 lives, and not unlike the charge brought in the Carter case.

The Levesque case made its way to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, which agreed that the couple had a legal obligation to alert authorities and reinstated the charges in a reversal of a lower court decision.

The case ended with an unusual probation agreement that if Levesque and King stayed out of trouble, they would have the involuntary manslaughter charges wiped. The reason: Levesque and King had significant mental impairments.

The Worcester fire was, at the time, the single largest disaster to hit a Massachusetts fire department in 20 years. Images of the recovery effort, including weary firefighters digging by hand through the smoking rubble, were published around the world. President Bill Clinton traveled to Worcester for the memorial service.


The second case that Judge Lawrence Moniz referred to Friday morning was a more obscure 200-year-old decision involving two state prison inmates, one of whom, George Bowen, convinced the other — Jonathan Jewett, a man facing the death sentence — to hang himself in his cell six hours before he was to be executed.

A jail keeper testified at trial that he heard Bowen in the cell next to Jewett instruct Jewett how to hang himself. Bowen was charged with “murder by counseling” but later acquitted.

Cynthia Needham can be reached at cynthia.needham@globe.com. Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com.