Suspect testifies that he set fires Motive was suicide, he tells hearing

December 04, 1992|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

A Catonsville man charged with a string of arsons in Howard and Baltimore counties testified yesterday that he set the fires as a way of killing himself.

James McManus, 34, said that beginning in January, he set as many as 50 fires with a trigger lighter. He said he targeted abandoned, dilapidated houses and buildings because they symbolized how he felt about himself.

Mr. McManus, speaking in a calm and steady manner, testified that he was guided by two voices -- one mischievous and one evil -- to kill himself by setting the fires.

"My motive was essentially suicide," said Mr. McManus, a former pharmacist at a People's Drug Store in Columbia. "At least in my warped mind at the time, it was a form of suicide."

After setting the fires, Mr. McManus said, "I felt purified and cleansed. But again, that was only temporary."

Mr. McManus testified during a hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court to determine whether he should be held criminally responsible for two fires in Catonsville last March.

The defendant pleaded guilty to one count each of arson and attempted arson as part of a plea agreement in fires set at two houses along Frederick Road on March 12. No one was injured in either blaze.

Prosecutors dropped one count of burglary and two additional counts of arson in the plea agreement.

Mr. McManus entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity on the charges. He has entered a similar plea in Howard Circuit Court for five fires in historic Ellicott City and Columbia.

At yesterday's hearing, Judge Joseph Murphy heard testimony to determine whether to accept the defendant's plea in the Catonsville fires.

Testimony in the case continues today.

Mr. McManus told Judge Murphy that he has long suffered from mental disorders.

He said he has "night terrors," which he described as dreams in which he is paralyzed while "flesh eaters" remove his skin. He noted that his weight dropped from about 140 pounds in January to about 115 pounds in March. He added that he experienced hallucinations.

The defendant also testified that he attempted suicide three times as a teen-ager and young adult. He once responded to an advertisement in Soldier of Fortune magazine to hire a mercenary to kill him.

He said he stole items and went on compulsive shopping sprees, buying numerous clocks, watches, crystal and one pair of women's pink high-heeled shoes for no reason. At the direction of the mischievous voice, he said, he would go for drives, throwing many of the items from his car.

Mr. McManus sought psychiatric help for depression and panic attacks in November 1991, about five months before his arrest. He said he never told his first two doctors of the arsons, hallucinations or suicide attempts because he was embarrassed them.

Dr. Michael Spodak, a Towson psychiatrist who evaluated Mr. McManus for the defense, testified that the defendant should not be held criminally responsible for the charges because he suffers from atypical bipolar disorder.

The disorder -- possibly triggered by Prozac, an anti-depressant Mr. McManus was taking at the time of the fires -- caused severe mood swings, impulsive behavior and a lack of judgment, Dr. Spodak said.

But Dr. Sheri Bellow, a psychologist at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital in Jessup, where Mr. McManus underwent a court-ordered evaluation, said many of the defendant's disorders would not stop him from understanding the criminal nature of his actions.

If Judge Murphy holds Mr. McManus responsible for the fires, the defendant faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

If he is judged not responsible, he could be be confined to a mental institution until he proves he is no longer a threat to society.

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