Probe of Fatal Schenectady Fire Scrutinized; Wrong Suspect Freed

Information about another man's involvement was never checked out.


Shackled and draped in a suit of body armor, Robert Butler emerged from the Schenectady Police Department last May for his short ride to jail.

Butler's protective outfit may have been because police didn't want to take any chances. They had accused him of setting a house fire that killed four people -- 32-year-old David Terry and his three children, Layah Terry, 3; Michael Terry, 2; and Donavan Duell, 11 months. Butler soon would face charges that could have led to the death penalty.

But authorities apparently had arrested the wrong man. And now no one is facing charges for the multiple homicide last May on Hulett Street.

In an extraordinary move, Butler was released from federal custody Feb. 7 after spending nine months in jail. The office of U.S. Attorney Richard S. Hartunian filed an order dropping the charges and issued a statement citing the "unusual and complex facts, including information regarding the involvement of others ..."

Federal authorities won't elaborate on what prompted their decision. "We don't comment on pending investigations," Hartunian said.

But a Times Union review of the case, including interviews with witnesses, attorneys, investigators and law enforcement officials, raises questions about whether Butler's arrest was the product of a hasty or misguided investigation in which police and federal agents disregarded leads about a second man who may have had a grudge against Terry.

The second man, Edward Leon of St. Johnsville, has not been identified by police as a suspect, nor has he been accused of having any role in the fatal fire. A person briefed on the case said Leon denied being near Schenectady at the time of the fire. Attempts to reach Leon for comment were not successful.

James Frolke, a "nearly retired" bus driver from Amsterdam, knows Leon well.

Frolke said he learned of Butler's arrest from a news broadcast a day after the May 2 fire. Frolke, who never met Butler, called Schenectady police that day to tell them they may have made a mistake, and that they should be investigating Leon.

"In my gut, I know they had the wrong guy," Frolke said. "It was days later when they called me back. I gave them all the information I had. ... They said, well, we have pretty good information that this (Butler) is the guy and they pretty much dismissed what I had to say."

A six-page complaint filed in federal court last June included damaging evidence against Butler, including statements from two people who were with Butler on the night of the fire and said he did it. Those witnesses included Jennica Duell, 25, who was Butler's girlfriend and the mother of the children killed in the fire.

The criminal complaint cited a series of disturbing text messages exchanged by people close to Butler and Terry. The texts referenced Butler's anger at Terry for kicking him out of the Hulett Street residence after Terry believed Butler mistreated Duell.

The federal complaint against Butler also noted a detective smelled gasoline on Butler when he was being questioned on the afternoon following the fire, though forensic testing found none on his clothing.

Terry had a complex relationship with Duell. His family said he had a big role in helping raise their children. The couple's other child, Sa'fyre, who is 5 years old, was critically burned in the blaze.

Butler's motive, according to the complaint, was that he wanted revenge against Terry, who witnesses said died trying to save the children from the fire.

A month after his arrest, Butler faced a potential death penalty when his case was referred to the Justice Department by Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney.

A federal grand jury has been reviewing evidence in the case for months, but a turning point may have come in December when Butler's federal public defender, Timothy E. Austin, laid out information for federal authorities that pointed away from Butler.

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