KEENE, N.H. (AP) — Nearly a quarter-century after a fire killed a Keene family of four, a man who was a longtime suspect is going to trial in their deaths.
David McLeod, 57, has pleaded not guilty to four counts of second-degree murder. He’s accused of igniting a blaze in a drug-fueled rage on Jan. 14, 1989, in the apartment building where his ex-girlfriend lived and killing Carl and Lori Hina, their 4-month-old daughter, Lillian, and Carl Hina’s 12-year-old daughter, Sara.
Though McLeod was an early suspect, he was not arrested for more than two decades, in part because so many of the witnesses were drunk the night of the blaze or were uncooperative with authorities during the initial probe. New Hampshire’s cold case unit picked up McLeod in 2010 in West Sacramento, Calif., where he had moved and raised a family.
“I think everyone is very relieved that it’s finally going to be resolved, and that would include the family of the victims and all the witnesses involved,” said lead prosecutor Janice Rundles.
McLeod’s lawyer, Caroline Smith, declined to comment.
Investigators say on the night of the fire, McLeod threatened to torch the building where his ex-girlfriend lived and afterward bragged about having set the blaze. Investigators say the fire started around 2 a.m. in the second-floor apartment of Sandra Walker, next to the Hina family’s unit and just above that of his ex-girlfriend, Wanda Ford.
One witness told police that McLeod was drunk, high on cocaine and angry that Ford was with other men who also lived in the eight-unit apartment house.
Ten days after the fire, authorities say, McLeod refused to take a lie detector test and left the state. At the time of his arrest, McLeod’s family said he left New Hampshire soon after the fire to pursue a job in Arizona. He later married and moved to California. Relatives say he worked in construction until he suffered a disability on the job.
Court documents indicate McLeod will say at trial he had an alibi, maintaining he was at a party in a first-floor apartment with friends when the fire began on the second floor.
Authorities initially cited the credibility of witnesses for why McLeod was not arrested earlier. Many of them had been drinking heavily that night, including his ex-girlfriend, Wanda Ford, who has said she was there but remembers little. Ford also told investigators McLeod had made earlier threats to burn down the building, but she didn’t believe he’d do it. Witnesses have since been more forthcoming with authorities.
The Supreme Court cleared the way for his trial with a ruling earlier this year that prosecutors may use the testimony of arson experts whose findings are based in part on statements made by Walker, who lived in the apartment where the fire started.
Superior Court Judge John Kissinger ruled last week that arson experts may testify that Walker was among the witnesses they interviewed, but they cannot repeat the substance of what she said because McLeod’s lawyers can’t cross-examine Walker, who died of cancer in 2005. Walker initially told investigators she thought she may have fallen asleep while smoking and that’s how the fire started. But information she provided about the speed and nature of the fire led arson experts to conclude the fire had been set.
Jury selection is set to begin Monday in Cheshire Superior Court. McLeod has been held without bond since his arrest June 30, 2010.
McLeod’s is the most sensational — but not the only — arrest made by the state’s 4-year-old cold case unit. The unit’s other arrests include Arthur Collins of Manchester, charged last year with the 2001 shooting death of 50-year-old George Jodoin, and David Caplin and Anthony Barnaby, charged with killing roommates Charlene Ranstrom and Brenda Warner in Nashua in 1988. Caplin and Barnaby were arrested in Canada in 2011 and are still fighting extradition. Investigators in July charged a Massachusetts man already serving two life sentences — Craig Conkey — with the 1991 stabbing of a Plymouth State University associate registrar.
McLeod’s is the first of the cold case arrests to go to trial.