A Dalton, Massachusetts man was arraigned in Central Berkshire District Court Tuesday on a charge of burning personal property after being accused of setting a political display on fire Friday.
Friday night, hay bales adorned with American flags and an endorsement of the Biden-Harris campaign were lit on fire in a field along Route 9 on the eastern edge of Dalton. Kate Pike of Holiday Brook Farm says the display had gone up just a day before.
“We wanted a big voice," she told WAMC. "And this made it bigger.”
Lonnie Durfee, 49, pleaded not guilty to the count of burning personal property on Tuesday. The charge carries a maximum three-year prison sentence. WAMC spoke with Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington, who says the alleged act was politically motivated.
HARRINGTON: The Dalton Police Department, with the help of the State Police Fire Services, were able to pretty quickly identify the culprit of the arson that occurred on Friday evening, and Mr. Durfee was held over the weekend. And he will be held until we have a dangerousness hearing scheduled for later this week.
WAMC: And what are you pursuing a dangerousness hearing for Mr. Durfee?
As you can see from the police reports that were filed with the court, this is part of an escalating pattern of behavior. Mr. Durfee does have a criminal record of violent crime. And he, you know- The actual act of lighting the sign on fire presents a significant public safety risk.
When you say escalating, has Mr. Durfee been accused of performing other politically motivated acts of arson, or presumably politically motivated acts of arson?
Well, according to the police report, Mr. Durfee did admit to lighting other lawn signs on fire in his neighborhood.
If Mr. Durfee is found guilty of the charge of burning personal property, what kind of consequences could he face?
Well, it's a maximum of a three year state prison sentence.
In your press release, you talk about an atmosphere of political polarization in Berkshire County and the country at large in relation to this incident. Could you expand on those remarks?
You know, what we see now, I think is, we see a lot of acrimony between people on opposing sides of the political spectrum. And it's, I think, really important that as law enforcement, we send a strong message that violence or destruction of property, arson, in particular, that come out of people's, you know, inability to be able to express their political views in a civil manner will taken very seriously, really, because our concern is around public safety. And I think people- It's important for people to understand that as the election approaches, and beyond whatever the results are, we expect people to follow the law and we expect people to be safe. And just because you disagree with somebody's political stance, it's not an excuse to light fires or to commit any kind of acts of violence.
Are law enforcement agencies in the county concerned about further politically motivated acts like this leading up to the election?
I'm not authorized to speak on behalf of law enforcement agencies in the county.
From your office's standpoint, is that a concern that you hold?
I'll say my larger concern from what I'm seeing here in the District Attorney's office, is that we have a community that is under extreme stress. And the stress, I think, is affecting people in significant ways, and we're concerned. We're concerned about the health and the safety and the well being of our community. And we're working collaboratively across the community and across law enforcement to address those concerns. But I think right now, my message really is, you know, let's try to remember to treat people with kindness, to treat people with respect. You know, there was a second sign that was put up by the owners of Holiday [Brook] Farm about unity and respect. And I really think that is a wonderful message right now. And that is something that we all need to be mindful of in the way that we communicate and interact with one another.