NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A man has been arrested and charged in connection with a Hamilton Heights building fire last year that left dozens of people homeless, authorities announced Friday.
Jelani Parker, 34, has been charged with arson, reckless endangerment and assault.
“As alleged in this case, the defendant intentionally started the Hamilton Heights inferno that consumed the homes of more than 35 families and injured three of the courageous firefighters who responded to the scene of the blazing building,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement.
The fire happened back on Nov. 17 at a six-story apartment building on West 144th Street and Broadway.
As CBS2’s Jessica Moore reported, the November day is one that Edwin Rosario will never forget, as his 5-year-old son rushed outside in a blur of flames and smoke.
“Every time he hears fire alarms; fire trucks, he gets nervous and stuff,” Rosario said. “He’s traumatized because of it. It’s sad.”
“Every window was exploding. It was chaos,” said tenant Jasmine Rodriguez. “I could feel the heat across the street.”
Prosecutors told the judge Friday that they have video evidence that Parker, who was a tenant of the building, left to buy a jug of gasoline, came back and set the building on fire before running out without warning any of the residents inside, CBS2’s Jessica Moore reported.
Authorities said Parker, who was initially thought to have died in the fire, fled to North Carolina and then to California.
On Jan. 4, Parker was arrested during a traffic stop in Los Angeles and returned to New York to face charges.
“He ran to California? But he got caught now?” said neighbor Jose Badillo. “Well I’m glad he did.”
“Right now I’m very happy,” Rosario said. “You’re actually giving me the news. I didn’t know even that. So I’m very happy.”
CBS2 spoke with Xavier Donaldson, Parker’s defense attorney, after Parker’s arraignment Thursday morning. When asked if Parker had admitted to setting the fire, Donaldson said, “Absolutely not.”
“I believe that in this great country of ours is a presumption of innocence, or innocent until proven guilty,” he said.
Donaldson did not request bail Friday, but said he plans to.
“Those are just allegations,” Donaldson said. “We are prepared to go forward. We do not believe Mr. Parker is a flight risk.”
But the people in Hamilton Heights said they would sleep a lot easier Friday night, knowing the accused arsonist was off the streets.
“He got caught — it’s good,” Badillo said. “We don’t need those people in the street.”
“It’s so scary to have somebody like that right where you live,” Rodriguez said.
“Thank God and thank the police they got him,” said neighbor Juan Jimenez.
But the relief over Parker’s arrest was blunted by the anxiety of knowing everyone who lived in the building will need to find a new place to live.
Parker pleaded not guilty to the charges against him Friday. Prosecutors did not point to a motive for setting the fire, but said the families who lived in the building will likely be displaced indefinitely.
Both sides will be back in court on April 18.