Testimony in the jury trial of Mehrdad Fotoohighiam Thursday focused on the person who, prosecutors say, the Columbia businessman paid to burn down a woman’s trailer home in 2014.
Two men testified Thursday that Fotoohighiam offered James Hall money to set fire to the trailer owned and occupied by Marcia Green. A woman who said she was with Hall the night of the fire corroborated this in her testimony.
Fotoohighiam, who owns Columbia-based engineering firm ETI, is on trial in the 13th Circuit Court for Boone County for first-degree arson. He is also charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and attempted murder. He is accused of paying Hall, his employee, $500 to burn down Green’s home after she refused to sell him the land.
Scott Christopher testified about his relationship with Hall, claiming that he had sold Hall drugs in the past and done drugs with him. He also said that on the day of the arson, Hall took him to a trailer park, where the two met Fotoohighiam in person. He said that Fotoohighiam and Hall spoke of burning down a trailer.
A prior statement, which Christopher gave to police in November 2015, contradicts his testimony in court.
In that statement, Christopher said it was Hall — not Fotoohighiam — who spoke to him about the arson, assuring him that the two of them would be paid for setting the fire.
He admitted in court that he had lied in his previous statement to “get the police off of (his) back.”
In court, he pointed out Fotoohighiam as the man who offered him $500 to burn down the trailer.
One of Fotoohighiam’s former employees, Herschel Butler, testified that he was asked to distribute money after visiting Fotoohighiam at the Boone County Jail.
Butler testified that he received a letter from Fotoohighiam asking him to visit the businessman in jail. During the visit, Fotoohighiam wrote on a notepad and held it up to the glass separating visitors from inmates. In the note, Fotoohighiam asked that he “fund James Hall’s account for $250,” Butler testified.
“I was shocked,” Butler said.
He said he did not give the money to Hall and reported the incident to the prosecuting attorney.
However, Scott Rosenblum, Fotoohighiam’s attorney, presented a police report in which Butler stated he was asked to provide $100, not $250.
Butler also testified about an interaction with Hall in December 2014, during which he noticed Hall no longer had eyebrows.
“It stuck out immediately to me,” Butler said. “I said, ‘What happened to your eyebrows?’ and he said, ‘Nothing,’ and walked away.”
Jennifer Wilson, who was living with Hall at the time of the fire, said Hall told her that his boss offered him $500 to start a fire.
On the night of the fire, Wilson said she saw Hall leave the apartment with an antifreeze container that smelled of gasoline.
When Hall returned, Wilson said his body smelled of gasoline and his eyelashes were singed. Wilson said he asked her to dispose of his clothes, but she refused.
After he returned, Wilson said she heard him talking on the phone with a man she believed to be Fotoohighiam. She remembered hearing Hall use the phrase “out in a blaze of glory.”
Rosenblum questioned Wilson about her pending forgery charges and previous drug use. Wilson, who said she was homeless, originally asked for $2,500 for her testimony. The state declined, but it did pay for her hotel and prepaid meal cards while she testified.
The trial will continue at 9 a.m. Friday.