SARANAC LAKE - A jury Tuesday found Nancy Nixon not guilty of setting fire to a Park Avenue apartment building.
Nixon, 35, had been facing up to 25 years in prison after she was charged in September with lighting the fire that damaged the building at 169 Park Ave., a former cure cottage with seven apartments owned by the Nicastro family, in the early morning hours of May 23, 2012.
About 10 witnesses testified in the trial this month, which wrapped up Friday afternoon. The jury deliberated all day Monday, and they came back Tuesday with a not-guilty verdict on the felony charge of second-degree arson.
Firefighters rest after extinguishing a blaze inside this apartment house at 169 Park Ave., Saranac Lake, on May 23, 2012. Four months later, police arrested Nancy Nixon, claiming she had lit the fire intentionally, but a jury acquitted her of the charges Tuesday.
(Enterprise file photo — Peter Crowley)
"I think the jury really took this very seriously," said Peter Dumas, the Malone attorney who represented Nixon. "I know that Nancy is very excited. She's been in jail since the end of September awaiting this trial.
"At all points in time she has consistently said she was not guilty, and that's what the jury told everyone, too."
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne has said since Nixon's indictment that it would be a difficult case to prove.
"An arson case is always tough," Champagne said in a phone interview Tuesday. "Any physical evidence is destroyed by the commission of the crime."
Nixon's mother, Gail McGarvey, lives in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., and she called the Enterprise Tuesday after the verdict was reached to talk about how the accusations hurt Nixon's cleaning business, Fairytale Cleaners.
"She's lost her home, her business and everything, just about, that she had going," McGarvey told the Enterprise.
McGarvey said she is worried that, now that Nixon is out of jail, people won't want to hire her.
"Now she's got to try to scrape up and start over, if that's what she's going to do," McGarvey said. "She may be upset with me for talking to you, but I just think the community needs to know that she didn't do this."
The story told by several witnesses in the trial was that Nixon had two men in the car when she went to her apartment, and she said things about how a man would pay. The allegation was that a drug deal had gone bad, and that she threw a cigarette butt into some cardboard boxes outside the building to set them on fire.
But Dumas said that the witnesses' testimony contradicted each other's.
"I think the jury had to do a lot of hard thinking to see through, I guess, what was and wasn't true," he said. "That's how they came to their verdict, I believe."
Champagne noted that the witnesses who said they were with Nixon admitted to doing illegal drugs and drinking the night of the fire.
"We knew going into the case that we had some credibility issues with those witnesses," Champagne said.
Nixon did not testify during the trial.
"It's everyone's constitutional right not to bear witness against themselves," Dumas said.
He said Nixon told him she was in and out of the Rusty Nail bar that night, "but she was adamant that, 'No, I may have used back then, but I certainly didn't sell any drugs to anybody.'"
Dumas said he argued in his closing statements that while the fire may have originated from a drug deal gone bad, it wasn't Nixon's doing. He said he believes someone else set the fire.
There was evidence of arson, Dumas said, but a state police lab expert testified that it was started by an ignitable liquid, not a cigarette in some cardboard.
McGarvey said she believes police should investigate further to find out who really set the fire.
That probably won't happen, though. Saranac Lake village police Chief Bruce Nason told the Enterprise this morning that Nixon was "the one and only suspect.
"I believe, if she's been tried on it, that it's done," Nason said.
Dumas praised Champagne's office.
"The guys prosecuting the case - (Assistant District Attorneys) Glen MacNeill and David Hayes - did a fantastic job as always," Dumas said. "It's always a pleasure working with the Franklin County District Attorney's Office because they're extremely professional and extremely approachable.
"They're not out to just convict everybody. They want to see justice done, and that's what's really good about working with them."
Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.