Richard Ellison faces second trial for setting the fire that killed Robert McMillan

  • Richard Ellison, center, stands across the street from the New Hampshire State prison, where he is accused of setting a fatal fire in 2005. Next to him are defense attorneys Jeremy Clemans and Caroline Smith and Judge John Kissinger under the umbrella. Josh Morrill / Monitor staff

Monitor Staff
Published: 4/19/2022 5:15:58 PM
Modified: 4/19/2022 5:14:40 PM

More than 16 years ago, neighbors of Robert McMillan were sitting in their homes when they smelled an unusual, pungent aroma that forced them outside to investigate its whereabouts.

The smell came from the 282-284 N. State St., residence in Concord that McMillan called home. It was engulfed in flames.

McMillan was bedridden at the time, just weeks after suffering a stroke and didn’t have the ability to flee from the house. He laid on his mattress, helpless, as the flames spread. His caretaker Stephen Carter was out of the house, saying he went to a nearby gas station and the local Dunkin Donuts.

McMillan, who was 84, initially survived the fire and third-degree burns and tied to communicate with first responders before being airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital. He eventually succumbed to his injuries.

In 2018, Richard Ellison, a former resident of the N. State Street duplex, was arrested and charged with setting the fire that killed McMillan. Ellison is being tried a second time for McMillan’s murder after the first trial ended in 2021 with a deadlocked jury that could not agree on his guilt or innocence.

Ellison’s retrial, which began on Tuesday in Merrimack County Superior Court, featured opening statements from defense attorney Caroline Smith and Assistant Attorney General Rachel Harrington.

Prosecutors argued that Ellison, 49, was in a rage at the time of the fire. Ellison felt Carter owed him money and more time to stay at the house, causing him to drive to the duplex in the middle of the night, looking for belongings to steal and eventually setting it ablaze.

His defense attorneys argue that police and fire marshals mishandled evidence and mismanaged the investigation, as Carter could have started the fire due to carelessness with the appliances in the house.

Harrington told jurors that Carter was also a victim of the fire.

“(Carter) lost his entire future and all of his belongings because of the defendant’s anger and his desire to gather key thoughts,” Harrington said. “On the night of December 9, 2005, the defendant poured gasoline inside and outside the house, purposely setting fire knowing that (McMillan) was inside, knowing that he was bedridden and helpless, knowing that the only person who can help him was Carter, who wasn’t there.”

Ellison first came in contact with Carter through a roofing job that they collaborated on, and Carter eventually allowed Ellison to stay in the basement of his side of the duplex. Living with Ellison was his then-girlfriend Robin Therault, as they briefly stayed in the duplex in the summer of 2005. Carter kicked them out that fall, causing them to be homeless and then eventually stay with Therault’s sister, whom they were staying with at the time of the fire.

Prosecutors say Ellison stole McMillan’s cell phone from his bedside, along with taking clothes and roofing materials before pouring gasoline on Carter’s half of the duplex. Therault has passed away in recent months, but included in the evidence is Therault’s statements to police, and her testimony from the first trial, saying that Ellison confessed to her that he was responsible for the fire.

The prosecution is relying heavily on a testimony from Theriault that Ellison had confessed to her that he had set the fire, but Smith argued that her credibility was weak.

“Robin Theriault was in very big trouble,” she said. “She had just committed armed robbery and she learned from the police that her then-boyfriend, Richard Ellison, was the one that was being questioned. She was the one that wanted to get out of trouble. She did not want to go to prison, and she knew that was likely to happen.”

Jurors were also brought to the scene of the fire where they were able to see the North State Street lot where McMillan used to live, right across the street from the state prison. Along with eyeing the various angles of the garage that is still standing on the lot, jurors were able to see the apartment where Ellison lived at the time of the fire.

Harrington told jurors they will hear from three witnesses, including Theriault who say Ellison confided in them.

Smith will continue to argue that Carter was responsible for the 2005 house fire, saying a corporal at the state prison saw a large SUV leave the duplex minutes before calling in the fire, one similarly described to the car that Carter owned.

In the coming days, jurors will hear testimonies from expert witnesses Grant Fredericks and Larry Compton about videos taken from prison cameras and from nearby gas stations, along with McMillan’s nephew who was contacted soon after the fire.

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