Notorious Lowell arson case cast in doubt
The dilapidated three-decker was ablaze in a matter of minutes. Trapped inside, children screamed.
By: Jack Nicas
Read the original investigation here
A few weeks before the spring semester of my senior year, legendary Boston journalist Dick Lehr called me into his Boston University office.
“Read this,” he said, handing me a box heavy with more than 1,000 pages – the transcript of the 1983 trial of a Massachusetts man charged with arson and eight murders. The final pages depict his conviction and life sentence.
Dick, a BU professor and former Boston Globe investigative reporter, had accepted me into his investigative-reporting clinic, and now we were to examine whether the jury got it right.
In that clinic — then run in partnership with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and now run solely by the Center — students spend a semester investigating a story, with the aim of eventually getting it published in a local newspaper.
In early 2009, Dick and three students began looking into the conviction of Victor Rosario, a Lowell man spending life in prison, off a tip from Rosario’s attorney. The group pulled documents and pieced together some questions, but the case was complex and the semester ended without a story.
A year later, Dick was looking for one student to help bring the story home. I had spent six months working at the Boston Globe as a full-time breaking-news reporter, and, lucky for me, Dick recognized my byline on his student list.
Over the next six months, we divided up parts of the case. I took the fire-scene investigation, in which the Lowell Arson Squad had quickly concluded the fire was intentionally set based off burn patterns in the charred home. Dick took on questions surrounding Rosario’s signed confession, including his state of mind when he signed it.
We tackled a variety of other topics, including inconsistencies in an eyewitness account, a recantation by the police translator and a lack of accelerant or bottle glass at the crime scene despite investigators’ claim that Rosario started the fire with Molotov cocktails.
Our investigation was a long slog that included reading thousands of pages of documents and conducting dozens of interviews. Per one of Dick’s most important lessons for investigative reporting, we wrote memos on every angle and significant finding, documents that would later guide our writing.
While other students in the library hunched over textbooks studying for midterms, I read decades-old police reports and highlighted passages from fire investigation manuals. I was ecstatic.
We traveled to the crime scene in Lowell and to the Dracut home of the lead investigator, who threw us out after we started asking tough questions. Near the end of our reporting, we went inside MCI-Norfolk to interview Rosario, who broke down in tears while recounting his story.
I had heard a lot about Dick Lehr while working at the Globe and had read his well-known book on Whitey Bulger. Now I found myself working a front-page investigation with him. It was surreal, I remember thinking, kind of like a rookie playing alongside the home team’s Hall of Famer.
Halfway through the semester, we met with Globe editors to pitch the story. A few weeks later, we received the green light and began writing.
Dick graciously urged me to take a crack at the first draft. He masterfully edited and, in many places, rewrote. We went back and forth dozens of times, adding, chopping, refining.
By late May, the story was largely in hand and I was starting as a summer intern at the Globe, giving me daily access to the newsroom to help steer the story package: photos, a graphic, web presentation and a six-minute video. I found black-and-white photos of Rosario and other characters in the Globe’s library, as well as vivid photos of the fire.
On Saturday night, June 26, 2010, Dick and I gathered in the Globe newsroom to go over the final draft of the story as it was placed atop the Sunday Globe. The three-page spread was published the next day.
That summer at the Globe, I wrote two more follows to the Rosario case: a story on Rosario’s ordination as a minister inside prison and another on how fire scientists were questioning other Massachusetts arson cases that relied on now discredited forensic techniques.
Leading my portfolio of clips, the Rosario story helped me land internships at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) and The Wall Street Journal, which turned into a staff position. At the Journal, I wrote another feature last year on national efforts to review convictions based on flawed forensics.
When I first read the transcript of Rosario’s trial, the prosecution made a compelling case. I was unsure we had much of a story. But after six months of taking a closer look, I strongly doubted whether justice was done. So four years after the story was published, I was sorry it appeared to yield so little.
But then I received an email last week from Rosario’s attorney: A judge had overturned the conviction. The judge’s grounds for a new trial were the main findings of our story.
There was excitement, disbelief and a sense of vindication. Later, the feeling became relief. Not just that we were right, but that Victor Rosario was free.