Details of fires emerge; friends speak out
Those close to ex-firefighter Gregory Potter shocked by charges he faces from Durham blazes
Former Peterborough firefighter Gregory Potter, charged with setting a series of fires in Durham in the early morning hours of Feb. 2, was released on $5,000 bail Thursday after a Dover Circuit Court judge reduced the bail amount, which had initially been set at $100,000. Meanwhile, friends of the alleged arsonist and Potter’s boss are shocked by the accusations, saying the former firefighter and EMT is not the type of person to lash out against others or act violently.
Potter, 22, who was living in Peterborough at the time of his arrest on Sept. 16, is charged with setting fires at five buildings in Durham, all with people inside, early on the morning of Feb. 2. The fires occurred between 1:06 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., including four on Main Street and one on Smith Park Lane. Potter is also charged with two counts of criminal mischief and one count of falsifying evidence.
Potter waived his right to a probable cause hearing at his court appearance on Thursday. The charges against him will now be heard in Strafford County Superior Court.
In reducing the bail, Judge Stephen Morrison set a number of conditions. Potter must abide with a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and may be required to wear a GPS tracking device to ensure compliance. He is also banned from the town of Durham. He must live with his parents in Jaffrey and must refrain from excessive use of alcohol.
The bail amount was considerably less than the $100,000 cash bail that Potter was initially held on. According to published reports, when Potter was arraigned on Sept. 17, an assistant county attorney said bail should remain at $100,000 because, he contended, Potter was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crimes, and rehabilitation through a sobriety program would not be helpful.
But according to an affidavit filed in court by Durham police, three women who saw Potter at a party shortly before the fires broke out said he was very drunk.
Deputy Strafford County Attorney Alysia Cassotis, who is prosecuting the case, did not respond to a request for comment about the discrepancy between the reported statements by the assistant county attorney and the information in the affidavit.
Court documents provide timeline
Potter became a suspect almost immediately after a mattress fire was reported inside 15 Main Street at about 1:06 a.m., on Feb. 2. According to the affidavit filed by Durham police, a red Subaru with a Peterborough Fire Department sticker was spotted parked behind the building. The car was registered to Potter, who police said had been involved in an incident at the address in September 2012, in which he was allegedly in a fight that followed an August 2012 incident where he was accused of spraying a fire extinguisher on the vehicles of tenants at 15 Main Street.
Durham firefighters also responded to two other suspicious fires in the early morning of Feb. 2, including one at Smith Park Lane that destroyed an apartment and barn, driving out three people living there and damaging three vehicles parked outside.
The affidavit states that police interviewed Potter at about 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 2. He said he had come to the University of New Hampshire with a friend, had attended a party at an apartment at 4 Main Street, and had gone to bed between 2 and 2:30 a.m.
Three women who live in the apartment where the party was held said they had never met the men who attended, but knew two of them lived in another apartment in the building. The women said their neighbors came to the party with a friend, whom they described as “tall, very skinny and very drunk.” They said the friend left the apartment after about 10 or 15 minutes and didn’t return.
In a later interview, according to the affidavit, Potter said he had only stayed at the party for a short time and had left to purchase a cigarette lighter at a nearby store before going back to 4 Main St.
The affidavit says that video footage from a security camera at an Irving convenience store on Dover Road shows a man matching Potter’s description purchasing a cigarette lighter at 12:50 a.m., about 15 minutes before the fire at 15 Main Street was reported.
Two other fires in the neighborhood were reported in the next few days. Two witnesses to one incident told police they saw a thin white male, between 5 feet 8 inches and 5 feet 10 inches, wearing a knit hat and dark jacket, igniting something near the deck of a building at 19 Main St. They said the man overheard them, quickly turned and ran away behind the building, crashing into a tree as he fled. The men found the lattice of the building was smoking. Police learned about that fire on Feb. 8 and recovered a bath towel at the scene. The affidavit indicates that hair samples on the towel were analyzed, and while neither sample matched Potter, one sample was determined to match a man at the apartment where Potter was staying. A man who was with Potter that night told police that a resident of 4 Main Street had loaned Potter a towel on Feb. 2.
Police also recovered six images from Potter’s cell phone that they said were taken of the Smith Park Lane fire. “The fire was fully developed, but in early enough stages that firefighters and apparatus were not yet on scene,” the affidavit reads.
Potter was suspended from his on-call firefighter job in Peterborough on Feb. 13 after he was identified as a suspect in the fires. He resigned his position on April 1. He was arrested in Jaffrey by Durham police on Sept. 16.
Reactions from friends
Those who know Potter well say they are surprised and saddened by the arson charges against him.
“I’ve known Greg since I was a little kid,” said Ethan Jarzombek, 22, of Peterborough on Monday. “No one would ever expect anything like this.”
“He’s a kid who always wanted to help people,” said Patrick Morn, 22, of Peterborough. “He’s never shown an ounce of violence or anything like that. He’s usually the guy who’s screaming at us to be careful.”
Jarzombek said Potter was with him at the beginning of the summer when Jarzombek accidentally cut his knee open with a machete.
“He jumped right on it, while my mom was driving me to the hospital,” Jarzombek said. “He knew exactly what to do. I was so glad he was there.”
Potter worked this summer for BSB Groundskeeping of Peterborough, and his boss, Brad Banks, said he was an exceptional worker.
“I get to know these kids inside and out,” Banks said about his groundskeeping crew. “We work beside each other eight hours a day. Greg is one of the best guys who ever worked for me. He’s very intelligent and he’s just a regular innocent country boy.”
Banks said he had offered Potter an opportunity to work for him in Florida, where Banks has investment properties and is considering opening a groundskeeping business. Potter had to turn it down, Banks said, partly because he was hoping to do additional EMT and firefighting training but also because he knew he was under investigation related to the fires in Durham.
“Greg Potter is interested in saving people’s lives, not starting fires and hurting people,” Banks said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s innocent.”
Nellson Perry, a 22-year-old Los Angeles resident who grew up in Peterborough and has known Potter since they went to kindergarten together, said the charges are a shock.
“You have no idea how many times I looked at the news clip. It was really unbelievable,” Perry said last week. “I can’t tell you how surprising it was if you knew Greg. It was so out of character. I didn’t believe it at first, to be honest.”
Jay Capitao, 22, of Peterborough said Potter had been “quiet and meek” in high school, where he was a member of the school band.
“After high school, we started hanging out more. We’d go to gatherings at his house,” Capitao said. “We always had a great time. Sometimes he’d be on call and have to duck out. He really enjoyed the firefighting.”
Jarzombek said Potter was depressed after he resigned from the Peterborough Fire Department.
“He really hasn’t talked much about [the charges],” Jarzombek said. “He said the evidence didn’t add up. He’s been pretty stressed about the whole situation right now. He’s doing as good as he can.”
The cases against Potter will be tried in Strafford County Superior Court in Dover. No trial date has been set. Meanwhile, Potter will remain free, as long as he complies with the conditions of his bail agreement.
Potter is being represented by attorney Neal Nicholson of the Concord law firm McCandless & Nicholson. Nicholson was not available for comment on the case on Friday or Monday.
Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.