Sep 2, 2015 1:31 PM

Convicted Durham arsonist to appeal court's decision

DOVER - Arsonist Gregory Potter, who once served as a firefighter and EMT in Peterborough, plans to appeal his convictions, according to court paperwork.

Potter, 23, became belligerently drunk and set fire to five multi-unit housing structures in Durham in the early morning of Feb. 2, 2013, nearly killing three people sleeping at 4 Smith Park Lane, where a barn, apartment and three vehicles were damaged as Potter watched the fire spread - even taking a picture on his cell phone.

He was sentenced to four to 14 years in prison this July.

Potter plans to argue that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of his statements to investigators and Keith Rodenhiser from the state Fire Marshal's Office. Potter spoke with them at the Peterborough fire station, and told Rodenhiser he planned to go back to the University of New Hampshire to hang out after the fires, but his friends told him it would not be a good idea, and he should get a lawyer.

Rodenhiser was the last witness called to the witness stand by Deputy County Attorney Alysia Cassotis during the lengthy trial. She played an audio recording of that interview.

On the recording, Rodenhiser asked Potter how he could help him, and showed disbelief that an employee at the Peterborough Fire Department would become heavily intoxicated and partake in such dangerous criminal activity.

"The good thing is nobody got hurt," Rodenhiser said in the recording. "The scary part is that I have no control over whether you go home tonight and drink until you black out and then decide you are in deep s**t."

Potter told Rodenhiser he was ashamed of the things that happened the night of the fires. He referred to a party at The Gables, where he was kicked out after vomiting and urinating on the floor.
When asked about the fires, Potter said, "I'm not going to say I did it."

The recording ended when Potter asked to go off the record.

Potter also claims prosecutorial misconduct, insufficiency of evidence, and that Judge Steven Houran erred when he allowed a witness to testify about prior statements where Potter was identified on the night in question, the paperwork says.

Before the fires, Potter was in arguments with students who lived at 15 Main Street. He got thrown out of a party there, when a computer printer mysteriously burst into flames. And on his birthday, Potter discharged a fire extinguisher on four vehicles outside the residence.

Potter's defense attorney at the time, Timothy Harrington, said there were no harsh feelings between the parties. He blamed a man known as "Jack the Snipper," Jeffrey Gelinas for the fires, arguing he knew his way around Durham student housing.

Gelinas was paroled in 2012, after spending approximately eight years in prison for attempted burglary. In 2003 and 2004, he broke into young women's apartments, and cut their undergarments off them while they were sleeping.

Cassotis maintains it was Potter who went to the Circle K, bought a lighter, and snuck into the back of 15 Main Street to set a mattress on fire. She says Potter was still angry at the residents living in the house, and wanted to burn the house down.

In his drunken state, Potter decided to keep going, Cassotis told Judge Steven Houran during his sentencing hearing.

"Mr. Potter could have stopped there, but he didn't," Cassotis said, as she argued for 25 years in prison.

Potter set fire to 6, 19 and 20 Main Street before ending his reign of terror at 4 Smith Park Lane, where hay being stored underneath the barn created large flames and started to engulf the building.

During the trial, fire crews and police testified to the chaos in Durham that early morning, as they responded to three of the fires. The two others never caught on.

At sentencing, Harrington asked Houran to impose a one to five year prison sentence, with up to 11 years suspended, saying Potter was an Eagle Scout who experimented with alcohol prior to this event.

Potter's mother was one of seven people to talk on his behalf. She asked for home confinement, saying prison will destroy her boy.

"My heart is broken over this situation," Patty Potter said.

Durham Fire Chief Corey Landry spoke passionately, even becoming emotional about the case, saying Potter purposely lit structures on fire near their doorways.

"It strikes close to home. It's an insult to the fire service as a whole when a firefighter turns into an arsonist," Landry told NH1 News outside of the courtroom, adding, "He just shows no remorse."

In addition to the four to 14 year prison sentence, Houran imposed a three to 12 year suspended sentence and ordered restitution be paid to the victims.

After the sentencing hearing, property owner Arthur Klaeson, who owns 4 Smith Park Lane, was fit to be tied. One of Klaeson's closest friends was sleeping in the barn with his girlfriend on the night of the fires.

"My faith in the criminal justice system has certainly been damaged, let's say," Klaeson told NH1 News. "I don't know anybody who's committed five aggravated Class A felonies while endangering somebody's lives, getting a slap on the wrist like four years."

Harrington and his co-counselor Neil Nicholson, submitted a motion Monday to withdraw as Potter's attorneys because he is incarcerated and has "no sustainable financial assets to pay for private defense counsel."

New counsel may be assigned for the appeal.

Follow Kimberley Haas on Twitter @KHaasNH1.


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