Officials: defendant in child sexual assault trial died in Northfield fire
NORTHFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) – Authorities have released new details into a person who was found dead after a fire in Franklin County.
Laurie Loisel, spokesperson for the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, said that 47-year-old William Willey of Montague was found dead after fire tore through a building on East Street in Northfield Sunday night.
Loisel added that Willey was on trial on 19 charges related to alleged child sexual assaults in 2019 and 2020, which involved three different victims in both Montague and Northfield. Those charges included seven counts of aggravated rape and abuse of a child, one count of indecent assault and battery on a person age 14 or older, two counts of dissemination of matter harmful to a minor, five counts of furnishing alcohol to a person under age 21, and four counts of furnishing marijuana to a person under age 21.
Opening statements and testimony in Willey’s trial began Thursday. The trial was set to resume Monday after being in recess Friday for Veterans Day.
Firefighters from several local communities were called to a fire on East Street around 7 p.m. Sunday. That building, according to Loisel, was a shop rented by Willey and his car was parked on the property. Willey’s body was later found in the debris.
While the cause, origin, and manner of death remain under investigation, First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne said that the circumstances are not something they are used to seeing.
“It’s curious timing with respect to Mr. Willey being on trial for child rape and then dying mid-trial during a very extreme fire,” he said. “That’s a very unusual circumstance. We can’t remember the last time somebody on trial lost their life, so it’s a bit unusual, but it’s premature to say that it’s suspicious, and there’s no signs of any foul play involved.”
First Assistant District Attorney Gagne told us that a judge is expected to inform jurors Wednesday morning that the trial is over and will likely declare a mistrial since they can no longer proceed following Willey’s death.
We asked First Assistant District Attorney Gagne how the alleged victims are doing with the abrupt ending of this trial.
“In speaking with the prosecutors on the case, my understanding is that it’s an unexpected disappointment and let down for everybody involved,” he said. “This was supposed to be Mr. Willey’s day in court. The victims were out to see justice and have him held accountable for his actions, and so, they’re deprived of that opportunity. But by the same token, this chapter is closed, and hopefully, they can still move on with some comfort.”
Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Anne Yereniuk also issued a statement, saying:
“This is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the victims in the case, one of whom had testified in court last week and another two and their family members who were set to testify this week.”
First Assistant District Attorney Gagne told us that Willey was in contact with his father over the weekend, so they will be looking into what was said in that conversation.
The fire remains under investigation by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, who will look at remnants of the scene and conduct chemical analysis.
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