Talk of alternative personalities fuels jurors' doubts in arson trial

May. 25, 2013 @ 12:05 PM

Prosecutors contended that then-16-year-old Dalton Lee Huffstetler set the fire that destroyed his mother’s apartment, describing him as someone who is fascinated by fires and who admitted in interviews with police that he likes to watch things burn and frequently set small fires.

Huffstetler’s attorney, Herb Pearce, contended there was a strong possibility the fire was set by Huffstetler’s mother — or, to be precise, by one of his mother’s 23 alternate personalities. At the very least, Pearce argued, no one can be sure.

Only one of the 12 jurors saw it the way prosecutors did, so Judge Robert Ervin of Caldwell Superior Court declared a mistrial Friday in Huffstetler’s trial on a charge of first-degree arson.

The May 31, 2011, fire that destroyed Cindy Huffstetler’s apartment at 30 W. Berkley St. in Granite Falls was the second fire at the apartment that day. Around 8:30 a.m., a fire had started from some bare wires at a light in a back bedroom closet.

After firefighters had come and put that fire out, Cindy Huffstetler called the Red Cross to see if the organization could help her find another place to stay, but she was told that since her apartment was still habitable she was not eligible.

Barbara Childers, who was at the apartment as a home health aide, testified that Cindy Huffstetler was angry when she hung up from talking to the Red Cross. “She said, ‘What am I supposed to do, burn the effin’ place down to get anyone to help?’”

About 9 that night, Cindy Huffstetler testified, she went to sleep on the couch after taking two sleeping pills, plus pain medication and allergy medicine, and the next thing she remembers is Dalton Huffstetler pulling her from the burning apartment.

Fire investigators determined that the fire was set in the room where she was sleeping, not where the earlier fire had been.

Assistant District Attorney Dawn Tutterow told jurors in her closing argument that Dalton Huffstetler told police in interviews that he started the fire, and that he had spoken of setting small fires and watching the colors in the flames.

“He wanted to burn something that evening, and that’s what he did,” she said.

But Pearce argued that the police browbeat the teenager, who said he started the fire only to protect his mentally unstable mother, who Pearce said had motive to want to burn the building: She was angry with the landlord, both because she was being evicted and because he had long ignored her complaints about the bare wires that started the morning fire.

“Do you think he might have been afraid she’d commit suicide?” Pearce said in his closing argument.

Cindy Huffstetler testified that she doesn’t remember how the fire started. She also testified that when one of her other personalities takes over, she doesn’t remember anything that happened.

Prosecutors now must decide whether to seek a new trial or dismiss the charge.