By Clint Parker
Buncombe County – Justin Edward Caristo, the man accused of setting fire to the French Broad School, made a brief appearance in a Buncombe County Courtroom last week. Caristo appeared in court last Thursday (Feb. 28th) in connection with the February 5th blaze that destroyed the nearly 100-year-old community icon of a building.
Caristo was brought into the courtroom in an orange inmate jumpsuit behind the closed, cage-like window where defendants in custody make their appearance. Buncombe District Court Judge Patricia Kaufmann-Young presided over the case where he waived his right to a court-appointed lawyer and stated that he had retained his own lawyer to defend him in the case.
His lawyer, Buncombe County criminal attorney Stephen Lindsay, spoke with the Tribune after a member of Lindsey’s legal firm represented Caristo in court Thursday morning.
“Arson cases are cases I’ve handled many of over the years. I’ve been practicing over 30 years…Certainly part of what you have to bring to the table when you represent someone who has been charged with arson is a very strong recognition of how serious the crime actually is,” Lindsey told the Tribune.
He went on to say, “There’s concern for, you know, the people who lived in the building and their safety which was called into question. You know a major fire. Fires kill people…just not residents, but firemen and emergency personnel who respond.” At the time of the fire, the building was not approved for residential occupation, a fact which Lindsey addressed with the Tribune when asked if people were living at the school. “People would conclude that. My information is that that’s true and I think that there were other people living there too while the renovations were going on. Maybe a little prematurely. Things weren’t really ready to pass code and move in, but it’s my understanding that people were actually staying there.
“One of the things you have to appreciate is just how serious arson truly is, when you think about what your client is charged with,” Lindsey explained. “You take stock…was anybody hurt? Thank God, in this case, nobody was.”
Lindsey continued to elaborate on his line of thinking in his client’s case. “After you look at that and you can assess there hasn’t been injury to somebody, when you approach these things you want to make sure that you approach them in a very serious way because someone could have been. Then you try to find out why this happened.”
He believes there’s a wide variety of reasons people commit arson, from people who are just evil to the mental health of the person who started the fire. “So you try to assess your client on that spectrum of ‘how did this thing come about?’ So, what we’ve learned as we’ve looked into this, and talked to family members, and talked to various witnesses that saw this young man in the days before all of this occurred, was that his mental health has been suffering greatly as of late…this may well have been an effort on his part to take his own life.
“When we consider that, you know the next steps that you take is to have somebody, or some group of people, who are experts in the field of mental health evaluate him and try to help us understand, not just from testing him, but to talking to family members to find out if there’s a history of mental illness in his family,” said Lindsey. “That’s the process we’re in right now.”
Lindsey said his investigation of his client’s situation is that he was “very troubled” and had a history of “mental health issues” leading up to the fire. “That doesn’t excuse…what happened, necessarily, but it helps us come to a better understanding of who he is. So that when we face that time when we have to face a trial and ultimately, potential judgment in this matter, we’re in a good position to be able to show the uniqueness of him to a jury or to a judge,” described Lindsey.
Lindsey said he believes that the owners of the property did have insurance, which is a good thing. “It’s our understanding that the people who were doing the renovations had insurance. So there’s some insurance coverage out there that is helpful…I don’t know that for sure, but that’s what I’ve been told,” Lindsey explained to the Tribune. “And that’s always a concern that the people who have lost their property…how are they going to be made whole.” He went on to say that Caristo has nothing and that “every possession he owned in this world was lost in this fire.” Caristo’s next court date is April 5th.