Undercover Witness Helps Conn. Arson Probe

April 3, 2013
More than 60 hours of evidence material was collected by an undercover government witness in a triple-fatal arson investigation in New Haven.

April 03--NEW HAVEN -- An undercover government witness equipped with concealed recording devices accumulated more than 60 hours of material from his time spent with defendant Hector Natal, according to testimony Tuesday in Natal's triple fatal arson trial.

New Haven police officer Michael Mastropetre, who worked with the FBI in the arson investigation, took the witness stand mid-afternoon to describe how he wired the witness and then observed him climb into a vehicle with Natal and his father, Hector Morales.

Natal, 26, of Poplar Street, is charged in federal court with three counts of arson resulting in death. The quickly-spreading blaze in a multi-family apartment building at 48-50 Wolcott St. in the middle of a cold evening in March 2011 killed Wanda Roberson, 42; her son, 8-year-old Quayshawn Roberson; and her niece, 21-year-old Jaqueeta Roberson.

Natal's father, Hector Morales, 50, of the same Poplar Street address, is charged with being an accessory after the fact. He allegedly gave Natal a ride from the scene of the fire.

Mastropetre, the co-case agent in the investigation, did not get into the findings obtained by the "wired" witness. Mastropetre is expected to reveal this when he resumes his testimony Wednesday.

In his initial testimony, Mastropetre said he equipped the witness with audio and video recorders. Then, while in a surveillance vehicle, Mastropetre watched him get picked up by Morales' van on the New Haven Green on the afternoon of March 24, 2011. This was two weeks after the fatal fire.

According to Mastropetre, Morales was driving his two-tone blue van and his son was a passenger. Mastropetre identified both of them in the courtroom.

Natal, Morales and the witness, accompanied by Natal's girlfriend, drove to the defendants' home and remained there for a couple of hours, Mastropetre said. Then they walked around Fair Haven.

The officer said there were at least seven other times when the witness recorded Natal's statements.

Mastropetre said Natal first surfaced as a suspect seven days after the fire. Then, one week after that, when that witness was being interviewed by police for charges he faced in an unrelated case, the detective conducting the interview called Mastropetre. He joined the interview.

The witness, who was charged with third-degree larceny and other counts, provided information about the fatal fire, according to Mastropetre.

Mastropetre then entered into an agreement with the witness: if he cooperated with state and federal investigators and wore recording devices while meeting with Natal, then testified about it, Mastropetre would arrange with a state prosecutor to have him released on a promise to appear for the charges he faced.

In addition, Mastropetre said, the witness, who was homeless, was given housing and some other expenses such as food money by federal authorities.

In September 2012, Mastropetre testified, the witness, who had pleaded guilty to three charges, received a suspended five-year prison sentence. This meant he avoided prison time and received a conditional discharge. But four days later, he attempted suicide.

Mastropetre said the witness later was arrested on other charges and is now in prison.

Earlier in his testimony, Mastropetre said the property manager of the burned building, Michael Shamash, was eliminated as a suspect early in the investigation.

Mastropetre said Shamash's cell phone records showed he was at his home in Queens, N.Y. during the fire. Also, "There was no financial gain or motive for him to be responsible" for the arson.

The defendants' attorneys have tried to suggest Shamash should have been considered a suspect. During his final testimony Tuesday, Shamash was asked by Natal's attorney, Paul Thomas, if he remembered telling a tenant he was "going to do whatever it took" to get rid of the tenants at 48-50 Wolcott St. Shamash firmly denied saying this.

In other testimony Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Saul Cosme said when he interviewed Morales on May 6, 2011, Morales said he saw his son put drugs in Morales' van. Morales reportedly warned Natal not to do this.

Both defendants are charged with narcotics violations in the case. Prosecutors allege Natal set the fire because, in part, he was angry at somebody for not paying a drug debt.

Cosme testified that when he told Morales, without any evidence to back it up, that Natal's lighter had been found in the burned-out building, Morales cried and "said his son didn't have the heart to kill anyone."

Morales, who is charged with destruction of evidence because he painted his van after the fire in an alleged attempt to impede the investigation, told Cosme he did so because he wanted to sell it and he thought a new color would improve his chances of finding a buyer.

Call Randall Beach at 203-789-5766.

Copyright 2013 - New Haven Register, Conn.

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