Hector Velez and Rafael Torres

On November 10, 1978, at around 4 a.m., Hector Velez and Rafael Torres snuck into the basement of a house at 998 Intervale Avenue. They would later claim they had no intent to burgle the residents – and certainly no intent to kill them – but Rafael had left his jacket downstairs on a previous visit to friends in the building, and it was too dark to see. So they made a torch out of newspapers, looked around awhile and left. They failed to put the fire out completely. By sunrise, six people were dead of smoke inhalation, and another would subsequently die of severe injuries.

Hector and Rafael were both fourteen years old.

They would have been the first juvenile offenders tried for arson in adult criminal court, as directed by a new state law enacted the previous fall. But the Bronx District Attorney accepted the youths’ guilty plea to burglary instead, citing doubt as to whether or not he could convince a jury the pair set the fire on purpose and with murderous intent.

Velez and Torres received a sentence of up to two years in a secure juvenile detention center.