Arson trial shifts to defense

By Patricia Meade

The Davis trial resumes Tuesday; the jury will be sequestered.

YOUNGS-TOWN — Although a can of charcoal lighter fluid was confiscated after a fire claimed six lives, no flammable-liquid container was sent for analysis.

Christa Rajendram, an Ohio State Fire Marshal lab supervisor, testified Friday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court that traces of petroleum distillates, such as those found in charcoal starters, paint thinners, lamp oil and so forth, were found on a section of burned porch taken from the fire scene.

Traces also were found on seven clothing items, including denim pants and red tennis shoes. The clothing was collected by police at the Bennington Avenue home of 18-year-old Michael A. Davis.

Rajendram was called to the witness stand in the aggravated murder and arson case against Davis. The charges, being heard in Judge R. Scott Krichbaum’s court, carry death-penalty specifications.

Six members of the Crawford family — two women and four children — died at their 1645 Stewart Ave. home from smoke inhalation around 5:25 a.m. Jan. 23. Davis is accused of setting the fire on the porch in retaliation for the theft of his cell phone. The lead detective on the case testified that Davis confessed, then gave another version of what happened and named someone else.

Because Monday is Columbus Day, trial will resume Tuesday morning with defense attorneys James S. Gentile and Ron Yarwood presenting their side. The prosecution rested its case just before noon Friday, having called 23 witnesses. The jury will be sequestered.

In testimony Thursday, Robert Mauldin, a Youngstown Police Department crime lab technician, told the jury about evidence he collected from Davis’ house, including Davis’ red tennis shoes and denim pants. The shoes and pants were sent to the state fire marshal’s lab for testing.

Lou Ciavarella, another crime lab technician, testified Thursday that a can of charcoal lighter fluid found in a cupboard at Davis’ home was logged in as evidence and processed for fingerprints. No testimony was presented to say whose fingerprints, if any, were found on the can.

While Ciavarella was still on the witness stand, Prosecutor Paul J. Gains instructed him to sign the can out of the evidence locker and bring it to the prosecutor’s office. “Sure,” Ciavarella said.

During questioning Friday, Yarwood established that Rajendram never had a container of charcoal lighter fluid to analyze. He asked if a container would have been helpful.

Rajendram said a container would not have been helpful to her but would have been helpful to the investigation. She also testified that she couldn’t say the distillate found on the clothes was the same as found on the porch. She pointed out, however, that they were within the “same range.”

Rajendram also agreed with the defense lawyer that there was no way to tell how the ignitable liquid got on the clothes.

Brian Peterman, a state fire marshal investigator, testified Friday that his dog Lacy, a black Labrador retriever trained to detect accelerants, was deployed on the Crawford family porch and alerted authorities to two spots. The section of flooring was removed and sent to be tested.

Peterman said Lacy also alerted authorities to clothing items, including a pair of denim jeans and red Air Jordan shoes that had been taken from the suspect’s house.

Yarwood and Gentile objected when the prosecution made it known it wanted to call 59-year-old Enrique Ayala, whose Stewart Avenue house — across the street from the Crawfords — was set on fire with an accelerant about a month before the fatal fire. Ayala, at the time of his fire, named the three Davis brothers as suspects.

The defense lawyers said in court the testimony would be prejudicial, and they questioned Ayala’s competency.

Without the jury present, the judge conducted a competency hearing.

Ayala said he lives in a care facility and takes medication for epilepsy.

The judge allowed Ayala to testify.

Once on the witness stand with the jury present, Ayala was asked if he knew who set the fire. He said he did, a guy named Davis.

“Do you see him here?” Natasha Frenchko, an assistant county prosecutor, asked.

Ayala glanced at the jury, the gallery, the defense table and said there were a lot of people.

“Look around,” Frenchko encouraged.

Ayala said he couldn’t see.

He did not identity the defendant.

Frenchko asked how many of the Davis brothers set his house on fire.

He said three, adding they threw rocks at him and doused the porch with gas. He said he got out the side door.

The last prosecution witness was firefighter James Goodlet, who had worn a helmet camera during his time at the Crawford fire.

Due to technical difficulties, the jury was unable to see the firefighter’s video on a large screen — even though one of the jurors offered to help J. Michael Thompson, an assistant prosecutor, with his laptop computer.

Judge Krichbaum said he’d “rather not” have the juror assist.

In the end, Thompson’s computer was moved in front of the jury and they viewed the video on it.

Gains said the image depicted fire on the front porch and dense smoke inside.

Goodlet was the eighth firefighter to testify that he was injured at the scene. He got something in his eye.

The charges against Davis include firefighters’ injuries.

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