Gottardi accusers grilled on the stand

Judge tells arson-trial jurors he expects deliberations today

Posted: Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Two men testifying against the man charged with setting the fire at DeHart's Marina in September were accused in court themselves Tuesday.

Rickey Gottardi, 45, is standing trial on felony charges of first-degree arson and first-degree criminal mischief and misdemeanor oil pollution relating to the fire that began after 4 a.m. Sept. 21.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks told jurors shortly before noon Tuesday that he expected them to be able to begin deliberations sometime today.

Assistant District Attorney Doug Gardner said he expected to call only one witness this morning. Tuesday's witnesses included a man who lived with Gottardi on his boat in Auke Bay and another man living at the harbor, both describing statements and actions of Gottardi that connected him to the blaze.

James Christopher Maher, who lived with Gottardi, said that the night of the fire he had been drinking heavily but recalled the defendant returning to the boat at one point that night saying he couldn't get a fire going and he needed a torch. Later, he said Gottardi returned and said, "Look out the window, Bro."

Maher said he wasn't in any shape to look out the window. "I just noticed he smelled of diesel and was very wet."

The boat was powered by gasoline, he said, but earlier Juneau Fire Marshal Rich Etheridge showed the jury sections of two diesel fuel lines that had been cut at the marina. The day's first witness, James Beckman of Petro Marine, testified that 1,692 gallons of diesel fuel was lost, along with 60 gallons of gasoline.

Maher said Gottardi was upset about his electrical bill at the harbor and said he was going to burn the harbor manager's office.

Gottardi's attorney, Assistant Public Advocate Stephen Wells, questioned Maher's motivation for talking to Etheridge and Juneau police. He asked if Maher asked police to forget about a charge accusing him of shoplifting a baseball bat from Fred Meyer.

Maher said he ended up pleading guilty to that charge and was placed in protective custody from Gottardi when he went to the Lemon Creek Correctional Center to serve his sentence.

"Did you set this fire?" Wells demanded. Maher said he did not.

Wells also asked if Maher planned to set the fire or talked about setting a fire to turn in someone for the reward money.

Maher denied all accusations. He also said he received no reward money.

Wells asked him why he used a false name when first talking with authorities.

Maher said it was because he was afraid of Gottardi.

The next witness, Dan Rasmussen, began to laugh when Wells asked him if he started the fire.

Rasmussen, who lived in another boat in the harbor, said he had met Gottardi in jail but didn't associate with him. He also said he was sober that night, following his probation, which forbids him from drinking alcohol.

Rasmussen said he saw Gottardi walk past his boat twice between 3:30 and 4 a.m. About 10 or 15 minutes after he saw Gottardi walk by the last time, he said he saw an orange glow outside the window.

Juneau police investigator Paul Hatch testified that he served a search warrant on Gottardi's boat, seizing four propane tanks and two folding knives. He found no diesel on the boat.

Gottardi originally told him he slept through the night of the fire, from 11 p.m. past 10 a.m. Later he said he got up between 2 and 4 a.m. to use a harbor restroom.

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