Opening statements given in trial of man accused of arson
CATAWBA COUNTY, N.C. —
Testimony got under way Tuesday in the trial of a man accused of setting a fire that burned several apartments in Hickory.
The woman living in the apartment where the fire started had a restraining order on the man charged with four counts of arson. She was the first to take the stand on Tuesday.
At times, Melissa Shorter fought back tears as she talked about her life and the fire that destroyed everything she owned at the Horseshoe apartments in southwest Hickory. She described fighting the flames before calling 911.
“I threw water. I threw furniture out of the house that wasn't on fire,” she said. “I flipped the couch over to try to suffocate the flames."
Investigators believe Shorter's ex-boyfriend, Jesse Conley, set the couch on fire, heavily damaging several apartments that morning. She told the jury that he'd come to her apartment despite a court order against any contact. On one occasion prior to that night, she claimed he had threatened to kill her.
“I woke up with him on the top of me with lighter fluid and a lighter, and he said if I didn't have the charges dropped that I wouldn't wake up the next time,” Shorter said.
But Conley's attorney told the jury no one saw him start the fire and that Shorter was drinking and smoking the night it happened.
Several of his family members were in court Tuesday. They don't believe he did it.
“He has a big heart. He works in the community. He helps everybody,” said Tammy Conley, his sister-in-law.
“I believe in him. I really do believe in him,” his father, James Conley, said. “I'm praying for him and he is praying for himself."
Conley has been locked up since his arrest last summer but could face decades of prison time if convicted by a jury of all the charges.