Telegraph, The (Nashua, NH)
December 24, 2002
NASHUA – More than four years after her family’s home was gutted by fire, Eileen Dowdle admitted to charges stemming from the blaze and left Hillsborough County Superior Court a free woman. Dowdle, 50, had been jailed since March 30, 2000, when she was convicted of setting the fire while her family slept.
Despite having confessed to setting the fire four years ago, Dowdle had insisted upon her innocence, claiming that police had threatened her and that she feared they suspected her husband. The state Supreme Court overturned Dowdle’s conviction in September, ruling that her trial was tainted by the prosecutor’s comments maligning her lawyers during closing arguments.
A new trial had been scheduled for this spring. On Monday morning, however, Dowdle pleaded guilty to felony charges of reckless conduct and insurance fraud. Assistant County Attorney Michael Craig agreed to drop the arson charge as part of the plea bargain. Dowdle was sentenced to 995 days in jail – the exact amount she has already served. An additional prison sentence of two to four years will remain suspended for five years, so long as she stays out of trouble. Dowdle gasped audibly when she learned she would be able to walk right out of the courtroom, and tears welled in her eyes as she hugged her husband, Stephen Dowdle. Eileen Dowdle declined to comment after the hearing, however, referring questions to her defense lawyer, Adam Bernstein.
“I think she’s just happy that this is over and she can move on with her life,” Bernstein said, adding, “It was a difficult decision (to plead guilty), but the decision belonged to her.” Dowdle had been sentenced to five to 10 years in prison after she was convicted the first time. Craig said the plea bar-gain “recognizes her willingness to finally accept responsibility for her actions.” Dowdle’s conviction clears the way for the city to take action toward getting the long-vacant house demolished, according to Craig and the city’s lawyer, Stephen Bennett. Previously, Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Bernard Hampsey had ruled that the house had to be preserved as evidence while the criminal case remained open.
Now, Bennett said, the city will send the Dowdles a notice ordering them to either repair or raze the building, which neighbors complain has become a hazard and an eyesore. The Dowdles will have 60 days to respond, and if they fail to comply, the city can have the building torn down, and put a lien against the property to recover the cost. Dowdle and eight other people escaped from the house unharmed during the fire in the early morning of Sept. 28, 1998, but two dogs died and the house was all but destroyed.
Some 10 hours later, Dowdle confessed to police that she had set the fire, pouring lighter fluid on the porch and dropping a match. Dowdle also admitted to sending threatening notes in the mail beforehand, warning of the fire. Prosecutors argued Dowdle set the fire because she desperately wanted to move and her husband wanted to stay. A neighbor who had molested two of their children was due to be released from prison soon, and the family was feuding with another neighbor who once, during an argument, yelled that he would burn down the Dowdles’ house. His threat gave Dowdle the idea, she later told police. Andrew Wolfe can be reached at 594-6410 or [email protected]
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