Police say Strafford man burned down his home after making 29 calls to 911

Nick Howe, owner of Howe Enterprises, of Tunbridge, waits for a hand from John Blakeney, of Tunbridge, to pull one of his portable toilets out of a brook in Strafford, Vt., on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, near the site of fire that destroyed a cabin on Saturday. They did not know how the toilet got in the brook, but it was partially melted by the fire. Edward Gallagher III, who lived in the cabin was arraigned on a charge of first degree arson on Monday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Nick Howe, owner of Howe Enterprises, of Tunbridge, waits for a hand from John Blakeney, of Tunbridge, to pull one of his portable toilets out of a brook in Strafford, Vt., on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, near the site of fire that destroyed a cabin on Saturday. They did not know how the toilet got in the brook, but it was partially melted by the fire. Edward Gallagher III, who lived in the cabin was arraigned on a charge of first degree arson on Monday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

Edward Gallagher III appears by video from the Southern State Correctional Facility on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, to be arraigned in Windham County Superior Court on a charge of first degree artson for allegedly burning down his home, a camp with no running water in Strafford, Vt., early Saturday morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Edward Gallagher III appears by video from the Southern State Correctional Facility on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, to be arraigned in Windham County Superior Court on a charge of first degree artson for allegedly burning down his home, a camp with no running water in Strafford, Vt., early Saturday morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Charred debris is all that remains Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, of a small cabin with no running water that burned on Saturday morning  in Strafford, Vt. Edward Gallagher III was arrested Saturday morning for allegedly setting the fire. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Charred debris is all that remains Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, of a small cabin with no running water that burned on Saturday morning in Strafford, Vt. Edward Gallagher III was arrested Saturday morning for allegedly setting the fire. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 09-12-2023 6:19 AM

CHELSEA — A 37-year-old man was ordered Monday to undergo a competency evaluation after he allegedly burned down his cabin on a back road in Strafford over the weekend.

Edward Gallagher III, of Taylor Valley Road, was arrested and charged with arson in the first degree on Saturday morning. According to court documents, Gallagher had called 911 more than two dozen times the preceding night reporting that he was going to set his home on fire as a “distress signal.”

Strafford firefighters eventually were called to a structure fire shortly before 8 a.m. on Taylor Valley Road, where they found a cabin already “completely burned” and observed a man walking away from the scene, according to authorities. Gallagher showed up later Saturday morning miles away at Coburn’s General Store in South Strafford and was arrested by Vermont State Police troopers without incident.

On Monday at his arraignment hearing — held via video conference from Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield — Gallagher pleaded not guilty. Judge John Treadwell released Gallagher from custody under the condition he must reside at a “court-approved address” under curfew.

Nothing remained of the cabin on Monday but a few pieces of a cinder-block foundation and charred debris cluttering the lot, which included the metal frame of a burned school bus with its glass windows melted by the fire. A portable toilet stall sat leaning on the rocky edge of a stream across the road from where the cabin stood.

Gallagher, whose 720-square-foot cabin without plumbing had been listed for sale for $89,000, called 911 “approximately 29 times” in the hours preceding the fire, telling a dispatcher in the last call received at 2:35 a.m. on Saturday morning that “he has a gallon of gasoline and will be lighting his shack up as a ‘signal fire’ to escape from the hostage situation” that he asserted police had “forced him into,” according to the affidavit from state police.

Asked on Monday why state troopers did not respond immediately to the scene to conduct a welfare check after the onslaught of 911 calls, Vermont State Police spokesman Adam Silverman said Gallagher “was threatening to damage his own property, potentially harm himself, and expressed a desire to fight with responding troopers.”

Nonetheless, Silverman said via mail, “VSP has not developed evidence that Gallagher was making threats involving other individuals or properties. In a situation like this, a response from police often can serve only to escalate a situation and place an individual, along with first responders, at greater risk of harm.”

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Silverman added: “It’s also important to note that in apparent mental-health situations, any response would be best served by including an embedded mental-health crisis worker, and ... they are not on duty 24/7.”

At 9:45 a.m. Saturday, state police said they received a call from a South Strafford resident reporting Gallagher was at Coburn’s General Store where he “appeared to be disoriented and advised that he was at a fire and needs to get out of the area.”

Store owner Melvin Coburn told troopers that at around 8:30 a.m. an employee of the store came to him and explained “there was a man on the (store) porch who wanted someone to call 911,” police said.

When Coburn went outside to talk with the man — whom Coburn did not know — the individual said he had “torched” his cabin “and wanted help,” and for someone to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital or police.

Coburn then called his wife, Sue Coburn, who was at home, and asked if she would come speak with the man “as she was good with these things,” the affidavit said.

When Sue Coburn arrived, Gallagher was across the street, where she went over to talk with him.

“She asked the man what was going on and he told her that he wanted help and wanted to be arrested. He told her he had burned his camp down” and “had sat in a chair in the road and watched the building burn,” the affidavit said.

Sue Coburn reported to police that Gallagher’s conversation was “all over the place.”

“At some point the man did identify himself as Eddy Gallagher,” and when trooper arrived at the store “Gallagher got down on his knees and put his hands behind his back without the troopers asking him,” the affidavit said.

On Monday, Sue Coburn said in an interview with the Valley News that she showed up at the store and saw the man: “I motioned for him to come and sit on the bench with me.”

He told her “he burned down his house down and wanted help,” Sue Coburn said.

Coburn credited troopers with handling the situation well.

“They were very kind and worked well with him. There were no scuffles, no anything,” she said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.