February 26, 2020

Neighbor suspected in arson> Probe of fire that killed 19 horses uncovers old Stetson feud

On Nov. 27 of 1996, fire investigators met with Jason Willard at his home on the East Newport Road in Stetson, their final talk before his arrest.

A month after the arson fire at Deseo Farm, Willard adamantly denied he caused the horrific blaze that killed 19 horses. He cried and told investigators that he was contemplating suicide. And as the grueling interview drew to a close, he was asked an unusual question: Why was he taking the fall for his former boss, Mark Merrill?

“He’s hung you guys out to dry, hasn’t he?” asked fire marshal’s investigator James Ellis.

According to more than 200 pages of law enforcement documents pertaining to last November’s fire, investigators focused on Merrill from the beginning, believing the owner of Nag-A-Bon Acres stable had a compelling motive to commit the arson.

Long after the fire, the town of Stetson is still reeling from its aftermath. Many residents say they have been forced to take sides in a long-standing conflict between Merrill and Deseo owner Jan Hartwell — a conflict authorities believe culminated in the inferno that killed 19 horses trapped in their stalls.

Merrill declined to be interviewed for this article.

For Ann Merrill, his wife and the mother of their two young children, the investigation has become a hellish waiting game, not knowing if or when her husband’s name will be cleared.

“I think about it all the time,” she said in a recent interview. “Can you imagine sitting around waiting to see if your husband will be indicted?”

She repeated denials that her husband had a role in the fire. “Despite his problems with Jan, he would never have gone after those horses,” she said.

Discusses fire

Law enforcement documents show that witnesses ranging from former Nag-A-Bon boarders to ex-employees heard Merrill talk often and openly about his desire to see the Deseo barn burn down.

Willard and his partner, Larry Gerry Jr., told investigators that Merrill offered them $300 to vandalize Deseo and set fire to the barn.

Yet, despite an ongoing investigation of Merrill, 10 months have passed without an arrest or an indictment.

The reason, according to prosecutors, is that the case is undermined by the very people who made it.

As potential witnesses for the state, Willard and Gerry have serious credibility problems. They are spending 5 1/2 years in prison and have lied to authorities on several occasions.

The documents obtained by the Bangor Daily News comprise all of the legal “discovery” provided to attorneys in the cases of Willard and Gerry, including interview transcripts, investigators’ reports and criminal background summaries.

Fire marshal’s records show that fingers were pointed at Merrill almost from the day of the fire. In the weeks immediately after the incident, Merrill acknowledged he was an obvious target, telling everyone from trail-ride customers to fire officials, “I’m the number one suspect.”

The possibility of the involvement of a third person was bolstered last month when Gerry implored Justice John Atwood to “get the man who set this whole thing up.”

Yard art

“This is an unusual situation,” said Deputy District Attorney Michael Roberts. “Generally, when somebody’s suspected of doing a crime, there’s not a lot of publicity about who it is or what the crime is. This is a fairly notorious crime.”

Unusual — unless you live in Stetson, population 1,050, where the antagonists in the biggest feud in town also happen to be next-door neighbors.

Side by side on a bend of lazy, tree-lined Route 222 are two barns separated by a barely visible fence. On any given day, it is possible to find horses grazing on either side and see a continuous, peaceful field of green.

But that picture is misleading.

Passing Deseo on the westward road, it is impossible to miss a bizarre piece of yard art: A stuffed man wearing an orange knit cap descending into a toilet and holding the handle. Following last month’s sentencing of Willard and Gerry, neighbors noticed that Hartwell added a sign with the number 2 and an arrow pointing down.

“Everyone in Stetson knows it’s Mark,” Ann Merrill said of the figure. “All year round, he wears that orange knit cap. The message to me is `Two down, one to go.”‘

After initially denying it, Hartwell acknowledged she kept the figure on her property, but would not say if it was supposed to be Merrill.

“I don’t think I have to explain myself,” she said.

Neighbors perceive the yard art as the latest volley in a conflict that has become a local version of the Hatfields and McCoys.

Like the famous feud, the one on Route 222 is known to almost everyone, but understood by practically no one.

“Everyone knows about it,” said Jeanene Wilson, a state District Humane Agent based in Buckston. “There’s been bad blood between Jan and Mark for years.”

Bad blood

Stetson has had its share of loud disputes over the years, but residents say nothing has divided the town like the fire.

Larry Johnson, a local school board member who owns Larry’s Stop and Talk, said his daughter boards a horse at Nag-A-Bon. His ongoing friendship with Merrill has caused him to lose business, customers have told him.

“In this country, you’re still innocent until proven guilty,” Johnson said. “I think that’s been lost here in Stetson.”

Problems between the two families go back at least as far as 1988, when Hartwell left a job as an instructor at Nag-A-Bon and opened Deseo Farm.

She said she quit because she disapproved of Merrill’s treatment of the animals. The Merrills said Hartwell was fired, and upon leaving threatened to run them out of business.

Since then, it has been a war of petty issues — stray animals, land disputes, horse show judging — nothing that would suggest either side was capable of violence.

In 1995, Merrill was asked by the Hartwells to curtail his long-standing practice of guiding trail rides through their land. Drought plagued the region that summer, and the Hartwells worried that a rider might toss a match and cause a forest fire.

Merrill posted a sign indicating that the trail across Deseo was closed. When the sign was torn down, he filed a criminal mischief complaint with the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office claiming Hartwell was the culprit. The complaint apparently went nowhere.

“[Hartwell] stated that she did not rip the signs down and why would she, the signs protected people from going across her father’s property,” read the sheriff’s report.

Tempers flared even a few months before the fire. In retrospect, an August 1996 horse show in Hermon seemed destined for conflict: Merrill’s niece entered a quarterhorse competition judged by Hartwell.

Hartwell, who says she was unware of the relationship, disqualified the girl for improperly holding her horse’s reins.

Several participants at the Los Amigos Riding Club show saw Merrill angrily rush toward the announcer’s booth and loudly proclaim that Hartwell discriminated against his niece.

Reported temper

While some say Merrill has a bad temper, others call him a good-humored man, well-liked for his robust energy and easy way with people.

“Yeah, he ranted and raved sometimes,” said Courtney Eaton of East Corinth, a former riding instructor at Nag-A-Bon. But mostly she remembers a man generous with his time and quick to help whenever there was a problem with a horse or a customer.

“He was kinda like a father figure to me,” she said.

It was Merrill’s reported temper, however, that got the attention of investigators.

Over the years, several employees and boarders at Nag-A-Bon heard Merrill say he wanted the Deseo barn to burn down, according to transcripts and summaries of interviews conducted by fire authorities.

A former boarder, who asked not to be named, indicated Merrill once said “I wish lightning would strike that barn and burn it down, with her in it.”

Sue Stevens of Glenburn remembered a confrontation she had with Merrill in August 1994, when a horse she kept at Nag-A-Bon broke its leg and had to be put down. Stevens heard from a Deseo boarder that Merrill had run it over with an all-terrain-vehicle. The story, like so many others in Stetson, was false; Stevens later learned the horse had overextended its leg on a run.

Nonetheless, when Stevens told Merrill of the rumor, he “came unglued,” Stevens told the NEWS. “He ranted and raved. He said he would burn down [Hartwell’s] barn and house.”

Stevens said she had to stand in front of his pickup truck to keep Merrill from going over to Deseo.

“I just told him `Get a lawyer,”‘ she said. “`Don’t get yourself in any trouble.”‘

Taped calls

Almost immediately after the fire, investigators started probing Willard and Gerry about Merrill’s potential involvement.

On Nov. 18 of last year, authorities had Willard make a taped telephone call to Gerry, the other man convicted for the blaze.

“Whatcha been up to, buckwheat?” Gerry asked his friend.

The two were distant cousins, close in age, both of whom worked for Merrill. Gerry, 20, was a trusted stablehand at Nag-A-Bon for the greater part of a year. Willard, 19, was an on-again, off-again employee often criticized for the quality of his work.

During the call, Willard steered the conversation to the night of Nov. 1.

“Well, what about the money we’re supposed to get from Mark?” Willard asked.

“I haven’t seen it yet,” Gerry said. “Nothing like that’s gonna happen until this thing is all done and over with.”

The call is considered valuable to authorities because it was made a week before Gerry’s arrest, before he might have been motivated to lie in order to lighten his sentence.

Both men later told investigators that Nov. 1 was their second attempt at making mischief at Deseo. They intended to go there on Halloween, but “for some reason, got spooked,” said prosecutor Roberts.

On the day of the fire, the two men tried unsuccessfully to lure another man into the scheme as a driver. They reportedly told him that Merill would pay for his help, according to fire marshal’s records.

In an interview summary dated Dec. 12, investigator Ellis indicated this man said they wanted “to go over and pull fence posts.” The man also said that in a previous conversation about fence posts, Willard and Gerry mentioned “something about a fire.”

Roberts said the witness would have been called by the prosecution if the cases against Willard and Gerry went to trial.

Nov. 1

Gerry and Willard told investigators they stopped at Nag-A-Bon that night prior to going to Deseo. Wearing a black hat and camouflage fatigues, Gerry waited in a ditch as Willard went inside.

Willard’s account matched. He said he went inside to talk to Merrill alone. The plan was to pull the posts and sell them at auction, according to a transcript of a Nov. 27 interview. In Willard’s account, the plan was for Merrill to pick them up later near his grandfather’s house on Route 143.

In the same interview, however, Willard indicated that Merrill never discussed arson. Gerry is the one who said Merrill would pay them to set the fire, Willard told authorities.

As Willard left Nag-A-Bon, he said Merrill “just put a smile on his face.”

Willard and Gerry left for Deseo, hiding in ditches to avoid the glare of passing headlights. Once there, they cut wires, pulled fence posts and — one of them, or maybe both — set the fire that killed 19 horses.

The value of the barn, animals and equipment lost in the blaze is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Less than a month after the blaze, both men were in jail. Gerry was arrested on the weight of several incriminating statements he made in the taped telephone conversations with Willard. A few days later, Willard was charged when he gave a detailed interview in which he placed himself at the scene of the crime.

Won’t admit guilt

If Merrill was involved, were the two paid to set a fire or to commit vandalism? Besides these unanswered questions, the accounts of the two men are cast into doubt by inconsistent statements they gave to investigators.

Neither man has admitted his guilt. Gerry pleaded no contest, rather than guilty, to the charge of arson. And Willard said his role was limited to holding a flashlight as Gerry threw a lit matchbook into a hayloft.

The closest they came to acknowledging their role was in a chilling conversation about the fire on Nov. 12.

“You probably just stood there and watched them die,” Gerry said, referring to the horses.

“I’m sure,” Willard responded.

The investigation took its toll on Willard. According to a Dec. 3 fire marshal’s report, on the day of Willard’s arrest investigator Ellis asked him if he was contemplating suicide.

“It would solve all my problems,” Willard said.

They have been compared to men accused of sexually abusing children — too ashamed to acknowledge their role in so devastating a crime.

In this context, even Gerry’s admonition to Justice Atwood to “find the man who set this whole thing up” could be seen as a final, dramatic flight from responsibility.

Despite his denials of setting the fire, which continued until his sentencing, Gerry mysteriously told his lawyer that he wanted to collect money from Merrill.

“It probably didn’t make much sense,” said Marshall Cary of Bangor, Gerry’s court-appointed attorney. “His attitude seemed to me to be `Well, I may as well get the money.”‘

Lack of motive

There have, of course, been other theories about what happened on the night of Nov. 1.

Perhaps Willard and Gerry picked up on the animosity between the two stables, and set the blaze to impress Merrill. Or they could have been paid merely to commit vandalism and got carried away.

Yet the search for a third suspect continues. The reason, apparently, is that neither Willard nor Gerry had an obvious motive to set the fire.

None of the usual aspects of an arsonist’s profile were there: They didn’t have a background in insurance fraud. They had no indentifiable financial motive, no background in fire starting. And there appeared to be no reason for revenge.

Their criminal histories consisted of petty thefts — nothing that signaled they were capable of the Nov. 1 fire.

“The unusual thing here is that the assessment of [a third person’s involvement] is based on the defendant’s version of events, and gut reactions on the part of the Fire Marshal’s Office, our office, and perhaps the court,” said Roberts, the deputy district attorney.

Authorities were so convinced of Merrill’s involvement that they used Gerry to make two taped telephone calls to Nag-A-Bon from the Penobscot County Jail. Both calls were made on Nov. 26, the date of his arrest.

In the taped conversations, Merrill consistently denied Gerry’s pleas for bail money. He angrily told Gerry that the former employee’s actions made him a likely suspect.

“I told you, I told you guys, if anything ever happened over there, it’d come right back across the street,” he said. “… You keep ’em on their side of the [expletive] fence. I stay on this side of the fence.”

`Whose idea?’

Cary had just been appointed Gerry’s defense lawyer. In a brief meeting that morning with Roberts, the prosecutor said he wanted the taped calls to be made to Merrill before news of Gerry’s arrest got to the media, Cary said.

He was too late. Merrill knew Gerry was in custody when the phone rang.

During the taped conversations, Merrill expressed amazement at Gerry’s arrest and repeatedly told him to find a lawyer.

He also referred to Willard’s claim that he offered them $300 to pull fence posts, an idea he called “crazier than dog s—.”

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” Merrill said during the second conversation. “I can tell you what, they’re gonna get you for burning that barn down.”

At one point, Gerry complained that he’s all alone, the only one accused in the fire:

Gerry: “Whose idea was it in the first place?”

Merrill: “Don’t matter whose idea it was in the first place.”

Gerry: “I’m the one that’s here.”

Merrill: “That’s your fault, not mine.”

The calls didn’t net the smoking gun prosecutors had hoped for. Fire officials haven’t returned to Nag-A-Bon since November.

During his last interview with fire autorities, Merrill chose not to take investigators up on their offer to take a polygraph test. Instead, he invoked his right to an attorney.

Merrill’s attorney, Paul Weeks of Bangor, advised him not to talk to investigators because they would “twist his words around” to make it look like he was guilty, Ann Merrill said.

Weeks declined to comment for this article.

The fence

As the first anniversary of the fire approaches, the tiny stretch of Route 222 that joins Deseo and Nag-A-Bon remains a private purgatory.

Ann Merrill has asked the fire marshal and District Attorney’s Office to publicly clear her husband if they do not have the evidence to indict him.

Though it would be unusual, Roberts said his office would consider such a move given the publicity surrounding the case. Such an announcement would require Willard and Gerry to retract their story, or authorities to find solid evidence that Merrill was not involved.

That leaves the very real possibility that the mystery will never be unraveled.

For Hartwell and the other victims who lost horses in the blaze, the hunt for a third suspect is a search for meaning as well as justice.

In an interview, Hartwell looked at the Merrill farm and lamented, “If either one of us makes it through this sane, it will be a miracle.”

Similar words come from Nag-A-Bon.

For the Merrills, the waiting game has more immediate consequences. If Mark Merrill is indicted, it could mean separation from a husband and a father. If he is not, Merrill faces the prospect of living under a cloud that may never be vanquished in Stetson.

“It was a horrible, horrible thing that happened that night,” Ann Merrill said recently. “But there are plenty of innocent victims on this side of the fence, too.”

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