Globe revisits fatal Lowell fire

Today’s Globe publishes a major investigative report re-examining the evidence in a 1982 Lowell fire on Decatur Street that killed 8 people. Immediately after the fire was extinguished on March 5, 1982, investigators suspected arson and the trail soon led to 24-year old Victor Rosario who signed a statement incriminating himself during a lengthy interrogation session at the Lowell Police Department. Rosario, who was convicted of arson and eight counts of murder, continues to serve his life sentence, but a new defense team has assembled evidence that they claim raises doubt about his conviction and plan to file a motion for a new trial soon.

The story balances this “new” evidence with an interview with Harold Waterhouse, the long-time Lowell arson investigator and lead investigator on this case, who retired more than 20 years ago but who is still around and very active in the community. (If you follow the above link to the story on, be sure to watch the embedded 6 minute video which features an interview with Hal).

Besides the Lowell connection, this story is significant as an example of a new model of investigative reporting. The story is written and reported not by Boston Globe reporters, but by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, “a non-profit, university based investigative reporting center” that trains students to be journalists and “helps to fill the ever-widening void of investigative and explanatory reporting” in the shrinking mainstream media.

As for the prospects of the motion for a new trial, it’s tough to say. Our legal system, especially when it comes to criminal law, is inexact, at best. The process usually gets it right, but sometimes mistakes are made. When mistakes are uncovered, they should be corrected. But because the criminal justice process is so inexact, even when the correct result is reached, it’s easy to pick apart the process, especially long after the fact.

3 Responses to Globe revisits fatal Lowell fire

  1. ML says:

    It is to be expected that the original investigator of the fire will be skeptical. However, Waterhouse’s remarks are disgraceful:

    “I don’t care about the new questions that have surfaced; I don’t care about these experts,’’ Waterhouse, who retired in 1989, said in an interview. “I’ll go to my grave with Victor being guilty.’’

    In other words, “I am completely unwilling to entertain any alternate theories of the fire, even though several fire experts have cast doubt on my findings.”

    I don’t expect the man to concede he was wrong at this point, but for him to essentially stick his fingers in his ears while he says, “La la la la la”…Well that’s not the kind of attitude we want from our public officials–especially if their profession relies heavily on science. After all, the inability to withstand the scrutiny of peer review is one of the hallmarks of junk science.

  2. DickH says:

    I’ve known Hal Waterhouse for nearly 25 years in both a professional and personal capacity. He’s an honorable and honest fellow and his reputation as an investigator was always that of a determined but fair investigator who actually understood that not everyone is guilty.

    Regarding this story and especially the video. we only see Hal on film for a short time. We don’t know how long the interview with him took or what was said leading up to his statements that appear on camera and on print. I’m pretty certain that if the entire interview was shown, we’d find that the questioner had pushed pretty hard and persistently before eliciting the comments reported in the paper and shown on the tape.

    Finally, when you scrutinize the evidence in any case, it’s easy to find inconsistencies and flaws but in a trial, the jury is able to evaluate those questions in the context of all the other evidence, From my experience, the jury usually – but not always – reaches the correct result. But a newspaper account intended to raise questions about the outcome of the case can be selective about what evidence is presented and the context that it’s presented in.

    Not having sat through the trial, I won’t offer an opinion of whether this defendant is guilty or not. But based on what I read in the paper today, my gut feeling is that his motion for a new trial will be denied.