The Stouffer’s Inn Fire: the Trial of Busboy Luis Marin

People v. Marin, 448 N.Y.S.2d 748 (App. Div. 1982)

Stouffer’s Inn was a luxury hotel and conference center in Westchester, Connecticut. At about 10:20 a.m. on December 4, 1980, a flash fire raced through the conference center’s top floor. Several corporations were holding meetings there. Twenty-six people died within minutes.

Initially, investigators thought the fire was accidental, but the speed and ferocity of the blaze strongly suggested an arsonist using an accelerant. Guatemalan busboy Luis Marin told conflicting stories about his actions during the fire. Marin was a coffee waiter who worked with Sterno, a jellylike fuel placed under coffee urns. As Marin neared trial, his defense attorney told the press Marin had indeed spilled Sterno earlier that morning but that he’d made sure to stamp the small flames out. When the inn suddenly became an inferno, he’d thought himself responsible and lied to his questioners.

On February 5, 1982, Judge Lawrence N. Martin Jr. denied a defense motion to dismiss Marin’s indictment, though he admitted the prosecution’s case was weak. The trial went forward with a procession of tenuous circumstantial evidence. Nonetheless, the jury found Marin guilty on April 11. Four days later, Judge Martin set aside the verdict. The New York State Supreme Court upheld the reversal on May 29, 1984. Marin went free, and the families of the dead executives won $48.5 million from Stouffer’s and other corporations in a civil suit.

In June 1984, it came to light that a housekeeping crew had spilled a highly volatile stainless steel cleaner in the area where the fire started. Hotel management allegedly withheld the information to avoid culpability.