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Former Firefighter Sentenced To Six Years In Arson Ring

March 28, 1985

BOSTON (AP) _ A veteran city firefighter, convicted of conspiring with seven other ″sparkies″ to set 219 blazes during a 14-month arson spree, was sentenced Thursday to six years in federal prison.

With the sentencing of 44-year-old Ray J. Norton Jr., federal prosecutors closed the books on what Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Robinson once described as a ″massive conspiracy to burn down the city of Boston.″

The arson ring was blamed for setting some 260 fires in eastern Massachusetts between 1982 and 1984. The blazes, mostly in metal trash bins and vacant buildings, injured more than 300 people and destroyed $22 million in property.

Officials said members of the group, who often cheered as they watched buildings burn, were motivated by a mistaken belief that the fires would force local governments to hire more firefighters after widespread layoffs in the early 1980s.

Norton, a Boston firefighter for 14 years and one of two members of the ring who did not plead guilty, was convicted by a federal jury Feb. 12 of conspiracy, arson and perjury charges. He had been free on bail pending sentencing.

He showed no emotion during sentencing, but members of his family wept.

In a long, emotional plea, Norton’s attorney, Jack Zalkind, begged U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel not to send his client to prison, saying Norton’s involvement in the case was minimal. Robinson had recommended a 20-year prison term.

Zalkind described Norton as a ″simple man,″ who suffered from dyslexia and epileptic seizures and was lured into the arson scheme by ″evil men″ who seemed to befriend him.

″I have never been involved in a case that has cried out for as much mercy,″ he said. ″He is not a normal man. When he gets into first gear and gets going, he can’t change.″

But Mrs. Zobel said that while Norton did not set any of the fires, he encouraged the arsonists and ″pointed out certain buildings for the others to torch.″ She said the fires caused heavy property damage and mental anguish for those injured, and a put an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.

In addition, she said, Norton lied to a federal grand jury, thereby ″prolonging the city’s agony.″

″The evidence at trial did not show Mr. Norton to be quite so much the fool or quite the tool as you perhaps would like me to believe,″ she told Zalkind.

Norton is the last member of the ring to be sentenced in a case that baffled authorities for more than a year before a former Boston police officer, questioned about stolen car parts, confessed to plotting with others to set the fires.

Other members of the ring have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to 40 years.