By Bill Cantwell
---- — HAVERHILL — The state Parole Board has denied parole to a man who set fire to a Haverhill apartment building in 1980, killing four people.
The board’s decision means James Boone will remain behind bars for at least five more years.
On Sept. 5, 1980, Boone pleaded guilty to setting the fire, which killed Shirley Jennings, 23, Sherry Jennings, 5, Mickey Jennings, 1, and Michael Gonyer, 9. They lived in an apartment in the same building where Boone rented. He received four concurrent life sentences on four counts of first-degree murder. He was also convicted of arson of a dwelling and received a concurrent sentence of 15 to 20 years.
In April, Boone requested parole. It was his fourth such request. All have been denied.
The Parole Board’s May 28 decision described these events surrounding the 1980 fire and Boone’s arrest:
On March 11, 1980, Haverhill police responded to a fire in a multi-unit building. Boone, who was then 20, was seen fleeing from the building immediately after the fire broke out. Fire officials later determined the blaze was intentionally set.
Police said Boone lied to them when they interviewed him, saying the fire started by accident when he tossed and extinguished a match that landed on a couch in an empty apartment in the building. He gave other false statements before admitting he did set the fire, trying to commit suicide by inhaling smoke, according to police. When the fire spread, he said he panicked and ran from the building, according to police.
Boone told police he did not mean to hurt anyone else.
According to the Parole Board’s written decision, during the parole hearing, Boone described his life in the years before the fire as a “troubled history’’ which was “comprised of mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and poor family relationships.’’
He told the board he was hospitalized at age 16 or 17 after a suicide attempt involving drug use, the report said. He has a history of feeling lonely and abandoned and once stabbed his grandmother while he was under the influence of drugs, the report said. It also said he had trouble keeping jobs, had repeated problems with drugs and alcohol, and had been in a drug treatment facility before renting the apartment in the building where the fire happened.
According to the board’s decision, at the hearing Boone said he tried to save the other people in the building from the fire. Board members questioned that statement, reminding him that witnesses said he ran from the fire. He insisted he was telling the truth, the decision said.
The decision also said that despite Boone’s insistence he is now mentally stable after receiving counseling in prison and is religious, the board doubts his ability to be productive if he is released. That is because he has failed to do well in jobs and educational settings in prison and has no family or other support structure outside of prison, the decision said.
After denying the request, the board said it will not consider another parole request by Boone for another five years.