By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — A Haverhill man who was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital after he was charged with setting fire to the White Street apartment building where he lived pleaded guilty to arson at a hearing Thursday in Salem Superior Court.
Superior Court Judge David Lowy sentenced Ernesto Nieves, 48, to two-and-a-half years to two-and-a-half years, plus one day, in state prison, which was deemed served by Lowy.
At Nieves’ arraignment on the charge of arson on Sept. 1, 2011, in Haverhill District Court, a judge ordered he be committed to Bridgewater State Hospital for evaluation after testimony by a court psychologist. According to the Essex District Attorney’s Office, Nieves continued to be held at Bridgewater until his hearing this week.
Nieves was represented by defense lawyer William Sullivan of Haverhill. Assistant District Attorney John Brennan served as prosecutor.
Witnesses told police that in the weeks leading up to a May 26, 2011, fire in an apartment building at 113 White St., Nieves had talked about using gasoline to burn the building down.
The owner of a market/restaurant located on the ground floor of the building told police that on the day of the fire, Nieves was “acting crazy” and was “going in and out of the store,” according to a police report.
Police said that on May 26, 2011, Nieves set his bed and closet on fire, then left his second-floor apartment at 113 White St., locking the door behind him. Police said he left without alerting the other tenants of the multifamily apartment building.
Nieves was subsequently charged with arson of a dwelling. Police had arrested Nieves on a warrant following an investigation.
Following the May 26 fire, the building’s owner said Nieves was a client of Vinfen, a human services agency based in Cambridge.
Vinfen is a private, nonprofit human services organization that provides services to people with psychiatric, developmental and behavioral disabilities, according to its website.
When contacted after the fire in May, a Vinfen spokeswoman confirmed that her organization supported several individuals living in Nieves’ building but would not identify them or which apartments they lived in. The spokeswoman said Vinfen clients who live independently are provided with services ranging from visits to their homes to assistance with such things as food shopping, money management, medication management and clinical support management.
Dr. Ann Teele, court psychologist, testified at Nieves’ arraignment in Haverhill District Court that when she evaluated Nieves, he displayed a range of behaviors, including disorganized thoughts, and that he referred to things she had not asked him about. She said that while being held in a jail cell, he displayed behaviors indicating he may have been in some kind of psychotic state.
Teele said Nieves has a long history of hospitalizations, including time spent in a hospital in Puerto Rico and at Bridgewater State Hospital in the past. Teele told the judge she believed that Nieves did not meet the standard competency to stand trial.
Nieves was ordered committed to Bridgewater for evaluation and was subsequently indicted by an Essex County Grand Jury on the charge of arson of a dwelling.
One witness told police that Nieves had talked about burning the building down and that he had been feeling stressed about people who were always going to his apartment, according to a police report.
When police questioned Nieves as to his whereabouts prior to the fire, he told them he was downstairs at the market/restaurant having rice and beans when he heard the fire alarms sound. He said he then ran outside and waited for firefighters.
The fire was reported at 11:54 a.m., when officer Ronald Hilchey was driving by the building and noticed flames and smoke pouring from second-floor windows of the three story building, which has eight apartments. Police safely evacuated the building.