National News

Tenant Used Gas to Start Upper Manhattan Fire, Prosecutors Say

Posted February 9, 2018 7:41 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2018 7:42 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — After a colossal fire burned them out of their Upper Manhattan apartment building in November, tenants were given little reason to think the fire was anything but an accident. Investigators had said they did not suspect arson and with no one dead, the focus seemed to be on helping the displaced tenants rebuild their lives.

But on Friday, authorities said a man who lived in the Harlem building used gasoline to deliberately start the fire and then fled the city aboard an interstate bus, even as scores of firefighters battled the blaze.

The tenant, Jelani Parker, was arrested in Los Angeles after officers who encountered him there learned that he was wanted by the New York Police Department, which flew him back to New York on Thursday. Charged with arson, felony assault and reckless endangerment, Parker, 34, was arraigned Friday morning in state Supreme Court in Manhattan.

The arrest was an unexpected turn in the aftermath of the fire, which destroyed the home of dozens of families who lived in the building on West 144th Street in the Hamilton Heights section in Harlem. But the suspect was a familiar figure to many of his fellow tenants, and his mental health issues were known to people in the building, said the neighborhood’s City Council member, Mark Levine.

“I know he had a history of contact with police and was an emotionally disturbed person with mental health issues,” Levine said in an interview.

In court papers filed Friday, prosecutors described how Parker set the Nov. 17 fire. He entered the building with a red gas can and rode the elevator to the sixth floor, where he lived with his father and mother. Parker then doused one of the rooms with gas and lit it on fire before running down the stairs and leaving the building, all in 20 minutes. His exit from his parents’ smoke-filled apartment was captured on surveillance video, authorities said.

As the fire continued to spread, Parker went to a bus station and boarded a bus to North Carolina, where his sister, who lives there, picked him up, according to court documents.

The fire drew over 250 firefighters and emergency workers to the scene and displaced more than 30 families, most of them immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Parker was unaccounted for immediately after the fire, which led firefighters to sift through the rubble of his apartment, fearing he was dead.

But investigators tracked him down in North Carolina and interviewed him over the phone the day after the fire.

In a series of interviews that day, Parker told investigators he had left the building to buy cigarettes across the street and minutes later saw smoke coming from the window of his apartment.

“I had incense burning in the apartment, but I put it out,” Parker told investigators. “I did not make any mistakes that would cause the fire.”

He also said that, on the day of the fire, three people from Harlem Hospital Center came to visit his apartment at his mother’s insistence, according to court documents.

“I felt like they were stalking me,” Parker said. “I had no incidents for three months. No massive arguments with my mother.”

Parker told investigators the incident that day left him rattled, and added that he was upset with his mother.

Authorities said Parker left North Carolina for California, where he was arrested after the Los Angeles Police Department encountered him. Officers determined that an arrest warrant had been issued for Parker in New York (though it had been placed under seal and thus was not public).

Ramón Ortiz, a tenant who lived in the apartment beneath Parker’s, said Parker suffered from schizophrenia. Parker’s father told Ortiz about his son’s condition after Ortiz complained about a series of loud banging noises coming from the Parker apartment early one morning.

Ortiz, who lived in the apartment building for 20 years, said Parker grew up in the building with his parents.

“They were a very decent family,” Ortiz said. “But there were times that those sounds from upstairs wouldn’t let me sleep, and I had to confront them.”

Parker’s mother apologized for the noises, and Parker’s father later confided in Ortiz that their son had mental health problems.

Ortiz said Parker was often admitted to hospitals for long stretches of time. He would return, “looking super well and rehabilitated.”

“He would see me in the elevator and joyfully ask me, ‘Hey, do you remember me?'” Ortiz said.

About eight months ago, Ortiz said he saw officers arresting Parker in the building lobby.

Parker looked agitated, Ortiz recalled, as the officers tried to calm Parker after he had a heated discussion with his parents. Ortiz said he told police about Parker’s mental health problems before they handcuffed Parker and took him away.

In one of his telephone interviews with investigators after the fire, Parker said he had stood outside watching the fire and left once firefighters arrived, according to court documents.

“So I just went to the bus station because my mother or father were not home so I just left,” Parker told investigators. “I got on the bus at 8:30 p.m. I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t take anything with me.”

Then, according to the court papers, he volunteered his innocence:

“Dude, it was most likely an arsonist. I wasn’t the arsonist.”