On July 22, 2021, Great Barrington’s Police Chief, Paul E. Storti, and Fire Chief, Charles Burger, along with State Fire Marshal, Peter J. Ostroskey, announced the arrest of Harry Sano, 85, of East Street, Great Barrington, on charges of burning a building to defraud an insurer, filing a false insurance claim, and burning a dwelling house.
The charges all arose from a July 7th fire at the four-apartment building Mr. Sano and his wife owned on Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington. At the time of the fire, all the apartments were vacant.
Mr. Sano’s arrest, two weeks after the fire, came about from a joint investigation by the Great Barrington Police Department, Great Barrington Fire Department, and members of the State Police Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit assigned to the State Fire Marshal’s office.
The police arrested Mr. Sano on the evening of July 21st, and after being booked at the Great Barrington Police Department, a bail commissioner released him on personal recognizance pending his Monday, July 26, 2021, arraignment in the Southern Berkshire District Court.
Berkshire Eagle reports a troubled history for the burnt building
Before the fire, the property had a checkered history with the town over housing code violations. According to the Berkshire Eagle, these involved:
- In 2017 a broken furnace emitting carbon monoxide sent five of the fourteen tenants to the hospital. The building did not have, at that time, working smoke or carbon monoxide detectors.
- At the time of the fire, the town had an active complaint in housing court against Mr. Sano and his wife, a co-owner of the property.
- When the fire occurred, Mr. Sano’s building had four apartments but no tenants because of the pendency of correction orders from the Great Barrington health department concerning unsafe living conditions.
- The Sanos claimed to have a buyer for the property who had plans to demolish it.
- Town health officials condemned the building three days after the fire because the blaze worsened the building’s condition, which included “overcrowding, leaks, and a cockroach infestation so relentless it persisted after the fire.”
Statements about the fire and the alleged crime by the Great Barrington fire and police chiefs
In announcing Mr. Sano’s arrest, Fire Chief Burger advised, “Great Barrington firefighters battled heavy smoke coming from every area of the structure and flames in the basement, first floor, and second floor.” However, he added, “With mutual aid companies from Sheffield and Monterey, they did an outstanding job of preventing the fire from spreading to other nearby buildings and minimizing damage to the building itself.”
Police Chief Storti’s statement concerning the alleged criminal actions by Mr. Sano, said that “Though the building was vacant, the act of setting fire to any structure poses a life and safety hazard to civilians and firefighters alike.” He also thanked the investigative team “for working so hard to identify the facts and circumstances surrounding what we allege was a deliberately-set fire.”
State Fire Marshall pushes the Arson Watch Reward Program
State Fire Marshal Ostroskey, for his part, warned that “Arson is an extremely serious offense, and we investigate it as such,” adding, “Fire doesn’t do what it’s told – it can burn faster and spread further than expected, claiming life and property without warning.” He urged anyone with information on an arson fire to share it with investigators or contact the Arson Watch Reward Program at 1-800-682-9229.
The Arson Watch Reward Program provides rewards of up to $5,000 for information that helps to solve arson crimes. The property and casualty insurance companies of Massachusetts sponsor the program.
The penalties on the three criminal charges lodged against Mr. Sano
The crimes involved in the case against Mr. Sano, burning a building to defraud an insurer, filing a false insurance claim, and burning a dwelling house are all felonies.
- A violation of G.L. c. 266, § 10— Burning a building to defraud an insurer provides: “Whoever, wilfully and with intent to defraud or injure the insurer, sets fire to…a building which [is] at the time insured against loss or damage by fire, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or in a jail or house of correction for not more than two and one-half years.”
- A violation of G.L. c. 266, § 111A—Filing a false insurance claim provides: “ Whoever, in connection with or in support of any claim under any policy of insurance issued by any company…and with intent to injure, defraud or deceive such company, presents to it, or aids or abets in or procures the presentation to it of any notice…knowing that such notice…or other written document contains any false or fraudulent statement or representation of any fact or thing material to such claim…shall…be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or by imprisonment in jail for not less than six months nor more than two and one-half years or by a fine of not less than $500 nor more than $10,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment in jail.”
- A violation of G.L. c. 266, § 1—Burning a dwelling house provides: “Whoever wilfully and maliciously sets fire to, burns, or causes to be burned…a dwelling house, …whether such dwelling house…is the property of himself or another and whether the same is occupied or unoccupied, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than twenty years, or by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than two and one-half years, or by a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”
Under this statute, the term ”dwelling house” is defined as “all buildings used as dwellings such as apartment houses, tenement houses, hotels, boarding houses, dormitories, hospitals, institutions, sanatoria, or other buildings where persons are domiciled.”
The Massachusetts Department of Fire Services
The mission of the Department of Fire Services (“DFS”) is to help keep communities safe from fires. It provides firefighter training, public education, fire prevention, code enforcement, licensing, fire investigation, hazardous material response, and emergency response.
By law, the local fire department is responsible for determining the origin and cause of fires and explosions in its jurisdiction. The State Fire Marshal is mandated to investigate fires and explosions where local fire authorities are unable to determine the cause, where a violation of law exists, or when the fire or explosion is or might be caused by arson.
The Fire & Explosion Investigation Section of DFS
This unit of specially trained State Police is assigned to the Office of the State Fire Marshal to investigate fires and explosions and to respond to possible explosive devices.
The Fire & Explosive Investigation Section of DFS includes the Fire Investigation Unit and the State Police Bomb Squad. Each unit has a self-contained command and control structure and serves a specific jurisdiction. Many investigators are cross-trained to assist other sections in time of need. Specially trained Massachusetts State Police detectives have functioned as State Fire Marshal investigators for more than fifty years.