Accused arsonist accepts plea deal
Gets prison term for two Vt. fires
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. - Calm and contrite, an accused arsonist diagnosed with multiple personality disorder entered no contest pleas yesterday over a pair of fires, one of which she blamed on an alter ego named Blackie Rage.
The case, which took nearly three years to prosecute, posed a simple question: Which of Cheryle D. Potwin’s personalities was responsible?
“It raises a fascinating forensic and legal issue: Who is it you’re holding accountable, if in fact a person has multiple alters, some of whom appreciate what is going on and some of whom do not?’’ said prosecutor Robert Sand.
“How does the court system hold that person accountable?’’ he said.
Psychiatric specialists say that Potwin, 52, of Sharon, has “dissociative identity disorder,’’ what was once known as multiple personality disorder.
Potwin developed the multiple personalities in response to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse she suffered as a child, specialists testified.
Among her alter egos: a 9-year-old boy named Buddy, a childlike Timmy, someone named Jason, and Blackie Rage, whom the others blame for one of the Sept. 29, 2006, fires.
Both occurred the same day, in towns 3 1/2 miles apart.
In one, police said, she set a series of fires in a home in Woodstock that caused damage but hurt no one.
In the other, two cats and a parrot died after Potwin set a series of fires in the basement, causing extensive damage to the home of a therapist at a Veterans Administration medical center who had treated Potwin, a US Air Force veteran, in 2004, police said.
Potwin, who was originally charged with arson, attempted arson, and two counts of burglary, planned an insanity defense at her trial.
A state specialist, one of four to weigh in, vouched for her disorder after examining Potwin. Two others had the same diagnosis, but all differed on the degree to which Potwin could control her alters.
“Right off the bat, that just presented a level of complexity to this case that you don’t typically see,’’ said Sand, the prosecutor.
The specialists involved in the case differed on how much control she had over her alter egos, and the case was headed to trial before the plea agreement was reached this week.
Under it, she pleaded no contest to arson and attempted arson, and two burglary counts were dismissed. In exchange, she was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison, all but 46 months of it suspended.
Counting time served, she now must spend another year in prison.
She was also ordered to make $7,000 in restitution.
Sand said the plea agreement sought to strike a balance between Potwin’s mental health needs and the public’s safety.
Calling Potwin’s background “unbelievably tragic,’’ defense attorney Kevin Griffin said the case was the most complicated one he had worked on in 27 years of criminal defense work.
“I don’t think I’ve ever represented someone who has been more physically, sexually, and emotionally abused than she has,’’ he said.
In court yesterday, Potwin was nothing but polite and calm, a marked contrast to an earlier hearing in which she refused to enter the courtroom.
Politely engaging in dialogue with Judge Kathleen Manley, Potwin told the judge that she endorsed the plea, in part because it spares her family the spectacle of a trial.
One of the terms of the plea agreement calls for her to undergo mental health counseling while in custody and continuing after she is released.