May 21, 2019
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Maine man not guilty by reason of insanity for setting blaze that nearly killed his longtime girlfriend

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Fred Roberts in the courtroom at the Penobscot Judicial Center in this Aug. 14 file photo.

A Corinth man who tried kill his domestic partner by setting fire to their home in January was delusional at the time, and found not guilty by reason of insanity Wednesday to one count each of attempted murder and arson.

Moments after he accepted Fred Roberts’ plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, Justice William Anderson signed an order to commit the 65-year-old to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for an indefinite period of time.

The fairly rare verdict acknowledges that Roberts committed the acts, but isn’t criminally responsible for them because of his mental state at the time. After his appearance at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor Wednesday, he was turned over to the state’s custody until a judge releases him. Had he chosen to take his case to a criminal trial or plead guilty to the charges, he faced up to 30 years in prison.

Roberts, a dairy farmer, was in the throes of a psychotic episode in the early morning hours of Jan. 24, when he set the fire that forced 70-year-old Barbara King to jump from a second-story window, according to court testimony by a Rockport psychiatrist.

King, his longtime girlfriend, was hospitalized with multiple broken vertebrae, according to District Attorney R. Christopher Almy, who prosecuted the case.

“He came to believe Ms. King wanted to die,” Dr. Andrew Wisch testified.

The belief “was the production of [Roberts’] delusional thinking at the time,” and capped off a period of worsening bizarre behavior in the weeks after Roberts was kicked in the head by a cow and then struck his head again after falling on the ice.

“Before this happened, I had some serious head injuries,” Roberts told the judge. “If I didn’t have those injuries, it wouldn’t’ve happened.”

Just before 6 a.m. on Jan. 24, Roberts poured gasoline on the couch, carpet and stairs of his Hudson Road home in Corinth, and then lit the fuel on fire while King was sleeping upstairs, Almy said as he reviewed the facts of the case. Defense Attorney Steven Smith agreed with Almy’s summary.

Unable to escape the flames that quickly engulfed the house, King jumped from a second-story window, landing in the snow, Almy said.

Shortly thereafter, a snowplow driver who lived nearby encountered Roberts walking along Hudson Road away from the house, the prosecutor said. The driver picked him up and brought him home, only to find it ablaze.

Later that morning, Roberts told investigators that he set the fire because King wanted to die and she had asked him to, according to Almy. When speaking to the police, he referred to himself in the third person and as his twin brother.

Roberts has remained at the Penobscot County Jail since he was charged with her attempted murder and arson.

He has undergone separate evaluations by forensic psychiatrists retained by the defense and the prosecution, who agreed that Roberts was suffering from an acute mental illness when he set the fire. The state’s expert, Dr. Robert Riley, did not testify alongside Wisch on Wednesday.

“In contrast to some defendants who are found not criminally responsible, Mr. Roberts does not have a severe and persistent mental illness where one can track severe psychosis over the course of lifetime,” Wisch said.

But Roberts, whom he described as otherwise mild-mannered and gentle, had developed signs that he was growing ill in recent years, Wisch said. In 2014, when his father was sick, he grew paranoid to a degree that his family urged him to a see a doctor, although his symptoms “resolved themselves” before he received a medical intervention.

That behavior returned after Roberts’ multiple head injuries leading up to the fire, according to the psychiatrist, who cited several instances where family and friends noticed “very dramatic changes” in the man’s behavior.

Wisch did not diagnose Roberts with a specific mental illness, and mostly described him as experiencing delusions and psychotic episodes. Roberts — whose mental state has markedly improved since January, his lawyer said — referred to himself as experiencing “multiple personalities.”

After the judge signed his commitment papers Wednesday, Roberts was transported to the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, just a few miles down the road in Bangor.

Several members of his family attended the afternoon hearing, and Smith said they had participated in Roberts’ decision to plea. King was not present Wednesday.

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