On Dec. 15, 2014, Marcia Green awoke to find her living room in flames.
“I really thought I was going to die,” Green testified Wednesday in the the first day of testimony in an arson trial of a Columbia businessman charged with hiring someone to set fire to a home.
Mehrdad Fotoohighiam is on trial for first-degree arson. He is also charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree and attempted murder in the first degree. He is accused of paying an employee $500 to start the fire.
The prosecution’s opening statement recounted the events that led to Fotoohighiam’s day in court Wednesday, beginning with his alleged payment to James Hall, the employee, and including the SWAT raid on his house that would end with his arrest.
Fotoohighiam hid in his attic before surrendering to authorities in June 2015, said Philip Groenweghe, an attorney for the state. The standoff lasted more than eight hours, according to previous Missourian reporting. Once in jail, Fotoohighiam solicited fellow prisoners and his employees to funnel money to Hall, the state’s counsel said.
One of those prisoners, Louis Spano, would later find himself in Fotoohighiam’s employ as well. In his position as a sales representative under Fotoohighiam, Spano was asked to procure a false affidavit from Jennifer Wilson, a witness for the prosecution, according to the state’s opening statement. Fotoohighiam’s goal was to produce numerous false affidavits in order to mislead prosecutors and complicate the case against him, said the state.
The defense’s opening statement attacked the credibility of various witnesses, as well as the quality of the investigative work conducted by the fire marshal and police. Scott Rosenblum, Fotoohighiam’s attorney, described the investigation as “completely botched,” pointing to potential evidence that had not been investigated and an insufficient record of Hall’s appearance, which had been cited in Fotoohighiam’s probable cause statement as corroboration of another witness’s claims.
Fotoohighiam allegedly offered money to two people to kill Boone County Circuit Judge Jeff Harris, who was overseeing the arson case at the time, but a trial date in that case has not yet been set.
The defendant is the owner of ETI, a Columbia-based engineering company, which does business nationally and internationally, according to its website.
Fotoohighiam has spent nearly three years in the Boone County Jail. He previously posted a $5 million cash bond that was ultimately revoked because he was deemed a flight risk. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Iran and once left the U.S. for approximately eight years to avoid a lawsuit, according to the probable cause statement.
Two people testified Wednesday: retired Columbia Deputy Fire Marshal Tim Bach, who led the fire investigation, and Marcia Green, who was inside her residence at the time the fire was set.
Bach testified about his initial investigation after arriving on the scene and his subsequent interviews with Green.
The trailer home had “extensive” heat and smoke damage to its west side and the adjoining porch was charred, Bach said. A shed that was connected to the home by a roof was also damaged. Green’s bedroom was so badly burned that only the metal of the home remained.
Bach said his team identified the origin of the fire as the west side of the trailer, where they found traces of gasoline and heavy petroleum distillate, a fire accelerant. Investigators examined burn patterns, conducted interviews and ruled out an accidental origin, he said.
During the investigation, Bach said he spoke with Green while she was being treated by paramedics for wounds to the back of her hands. He spoke to Green again during a second interview while she was being treated at University Hospital.
Bach said Green awoke to a noise on her roof that sounded like “running animals.” He said she got out of bed and saw a small flame six inches from the door. Bach then said Green closed the door, called 911 and reopened the door and saw that the flames had reached four to five feet high.
Defense attorney Rosenblum asked Bach whether the fire was six inches from her bedroom or the back door. Bach said that he believed she meant the bedroom door.
Rosenblum asked Bach if “flashing” could be a cause for the burns on the back of Green’s hands. Flashing occurs when flame ignites an accelerant. Bach responded that wounds of those types could be sustained from flashing.
During the investigation, Bach found a gas can nearby the shed, which investigators did not send off to test for accelerants.
“In my opinion, it’s where it belonged,” Bach said, adding he did not believe it was a “lapse” on his behalf.
Green, who was 67 years old at the time of the fire, testified that she woke up to a loud noise and opened up her bedroom door. After seeing a small fire was in her living room, she shut the door and called 911. Green told the jury that the phone call did not go through.
She attempted to call 911 a second time but, before she could completely redial the number, her lights went out. Until her escape from the trailer, she navigated her burning home without any source of light besides flames.
Green dropped her phone after the lights went out. She then opened the door that led to her living room again seeing “a wall of fire that had spread from wall to wall, ceiling to floor.”
She described the heat she was feeling as “like being in an oven that was on high,” before shutting the door again.
Green told the jury that after that she debated giving up and letting the fire get to her, she ultimately put on her shoes and kicked out a window and went through it head-first.
The courtroom saw pictures of the burns Green sustained during the fire. She said they came from curtains near the window, but she also told the jury the curtains were not on fire.
This inconsistency was one of several that Rosenblum used to attempt to discredit Green, saying that her story had changed several times during the investigation.
The trial is expected to last until at least next week, according to the judge. Fotoohighiam remains in the custody of the Boone County Jail.