Lawyer seeks public cash for arson probe
By Julie Manganis
Staff writer

SALEM For more than 15 years, James Carver has insisted that he is not the man who set the deadly 1984 Elliott Chambers rooming house fire in Beverly, a blaze that killed 15 people.

Now his lawyer is asking a judge to grant him money to hire an investigator to track down two new leads in the case, one of which he received after stories on the 20th anniversary of the fire appeared in The Salem News last summer. However, the District Attorney's Office is dismissing the leads as hearsay.

Carver, 40, is serving back-to-back life sentences for his 1989 second-degree murder and arson convictions that stemmed from the blaze, the state's second deadliest after Boston's famed Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942.

Last summer, defense lawyer Dana Curhan said he wanted money to investigate a claim made by a Beverly man in 2000. Donald Glidden told police he and a friend had been walking past the rooming house after "partying" all night, and his friend set fire to a stack of newspapers, saying he hated someone in the building. Glidden later changed his story after he was questioned twice by a State Police investigator.

Glidden then told police that his friend actually set a different fire. He also acknowledged that, at the time of the fire, he was drinking and using drugs, and he was having emotional difficulties when he approached police with his tale.

Though police eventually dismissed the statements as unreliable, Curhan believes they merit further investigation.

In addition, Curhan said that on July 1, the day The Salem News ran the stories, he received a call from John Latoszek, who told him he owned a restaurant in Salem at the time of the fire. One of the Elliott Chambers residents was a regular customer of the restaurant, where he'd often set fire to napkins in an ashtray.

Latoszek also said the man had set at least two other rooming house fires, one on Emmerton Street and the other on a mattress at the Lincoln Hotel on Lafayette Street. Latoszek also said that he helped the man remove his burned mattress from the Lincoln Hotel.

Curhan said Latoszek told him that, after the Elliott Chambers fire, he called a tip line and, when no one called him back, he called Dennis Jackson, Carver's attorney during his 1989 trials. Jackson purportedly never called him back, either.

"Based on the above, there are two viable leads which merit investigation," Curhan wrote in his motion.

Outside court, he said, "The police weren't interested, but we are."

First Assistant District Attorney John Dawley said he doesn't believe Curhan has provided adequate proof there is reason to reopen the case. He said all of the information is secondhand, from people who were not at the fire.

"His affidavit is based exclusively on hearsay," Dawley said.

Curhan has been trying to get a hearing before a judge on his request since last summer. One difficulty he has encountered is many of the judges sitting in Essex County are former prosecutors.

That was the problem yesterday, when Judge Howard Whitehead was presiding over Salem Superior Court's first session, where motions are heard.

Whitehead, who was a prosecutor when Carver was tried, recused himself from the case then considered a list of other judges sitting in the county yesterday. All of them had spent some time with the District Attorney's Office.

The motion will have to wait at least another week, when Judge Thomas Billings, who was not an Essex County prosecutor, will be available to consider it.