'Serial arsonist' sentenced to jail

·4 min read

May 16—NEWBURYPORT — A local man who police say wanted to "burn the city, little by little" was sentenced to two years in jail Monday after pleading guilty to several charges in Newburyport District Court.

Brett Henderson, 40, of Merrimac Street was initially charged with burning a building, disorderly conduct (two counts), assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and attempting to set a fire. The charges cover two separate incidents, both in December 2021.

But in an effort to keep Henderson's case in District Court rather than see him indicted and arraigned in Superior Court, the charge of burning a building was reduced to malicious destruction of property more than $1,200. The charge of attempting to set a fire charge was also reduced to attempted malicious destruction of property.

Henderson was initially sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail but saw six months of that sentence suspended for three years while on probation. And while on probation, Henderson must undergo a mental health evaluation and cannot have any incendiary devices. He also must wear a GPS tracking device for at least part of probation. He was given credit for 138 days already served.

During Henderson's appearance in court, Essex County prosecutor Shailagh Kennedy described Henderson to Judge Peter Doyle as a "possible serial arsonist."

Henderson was first arraigned in mid-December 2021 after police say he set fire to a utility shed at Pioneer Park. Weeks later, Henderson was arraigned again after trying to set fire to a dumpster on Water Street. A friend called him crazy for doing so, prompting Henderson to attack him, according to local police.

Henderson is also believed by police to have set several other small fires in trash dumpsters and trash cans around the city around the same time last December. Police say he was spotted hanging around the scene of at least three of the fires, a common trait among arsonists.

On Dec. 15, 2021, Henderson was arrested shortly after firefighters responded to Pioneer Park on Merrimac Street to extinguish a fire in the park's utility shed. By the time Newburyport police Inspector Michael Sugrue arrived, Henderson was speaking to then-Officer Megan Tierney and Parks Department employees.

"Knowing Henderson was at the scene of a previous fire, I asked him how long he had been at the park. He told me that he has been there all day and he is always there," Sugrue wrote in his report, adding that as he chatted with Henderson he noticed soot on the front of Henderson's jacket.

Henderson tried to leave after Sugrue asked him if he was carrying any lighters.

"He told me that he had a lot of lighters on him as he turned to walk away from me," Sugrue said, adding Henderson dropped a lighter onto the ground.

Sugrue then asked why Henderson had soot on his jacket. Henderson said it came from smoking cigarettes. But the soot on Henderson's jacket did not match ash that would typically come from a tobacco product. Sugrue spoke to a Parks Department employee who confirmed seeing Henderson near the shed, shortly before the fire started.

The second incident took place Dec. 30, 2021, about 11:30 a.m. in the area of 108 Water St. where Henderson and another man were fighting. Officers Charles Vorderis and Matthew Whitty broke up the fight and separated the two men. Henderson told Whitty that he was hit on the head with a rock and wanted to go to a hospital. He also told the officer he was previously charged with lighting a dumpster on fire, according to Whitty's report.

Voderis spoke to the other man fighting, who told the officer that he and Henderson were friends and were taking a walk together. During a previous walk, Henderson told his friend he wanted to "burn the city, little by little," Whitty wrote in his report.

During the walk, Henderson asked to borrow his friend's lighter to light his cigarette. After his friend handed him his lighter, Henderson walked over to a dumpster and tried to set the contents on fire.

"(The friend) told Mr. Henderson he was crazy. Mr. Henderson became agitated and charged (him) into the street. (The friend) stated that he tried to defend himself but Mr. Henderson was much bigger than him. Mr. Henderson pushed (him) into the fence at 108 Water St. and cornered him," Whitty wrote in his report, adding the victim admitted picking up a rock but not hitting Henderson with it.

Dave Rogers is a reporter with the Daily News of Newburyport. Email him at: drogers@newburyportnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.