A tenant testified Tuesday that an angry, intoxicated Valerie Moore threatened him shortly before burning mattresses outside his hotel room erupted into Reno's deadliest fire.
Maxie Birch said Moore told him "You will be gotten" two hours before flames broke out at the historic downtown Mizpah Hotel, killing 12 and injuring 31.
Birch's testimony came during a preliminary hearing in Reno Justice Court for Moore, who's charged with 12 counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson in the Oct. 31 blaze. The hearing was continued until Monday, when Justice of the Peace Edward Dannan is expected to rule whether there's sufficient evidence to bind Moore over for trial in District Court.
Moore, a cook in a nearby casino, had been paroled last year after serving 17 years in a Nevada prison for second-degree murder for killing an unemployed Reno waitress in 1987.
The 47-year-old Moore, in jail clothing and shackles, stared intently at witnesses but did not speak during the hearing.
Another tenant, Brett Stark, testified that Moore told him about a week before the Halloween night fire that she hated most men and
would like to "burn" several.
Birch, an unemployed cook who lived two doors from Moore, described her as a friend known as "Old Girl." Birch testified that the usually friendly Moore came to his room in a rage the night of the fire after a dispute with another male tenant, but he asked her to leave after she kept swearing at him for no reason.
Moore claimed someone had pushed her down some stairs, and her
head was bleeding, according to Birch.
Before leaving the room, "she said, 'You will be gotten.' I didn't know what that meant," Birch testified. "She was acting normal (earlier). I don't know why she was mad at me."
The fire broke out later that night after Birch refused to respond to Moore, who was pounding on his door, Birch said.
"I then saw and heard something being leaned against the door," Birch testified. "Then I heard a crackling noise. Flames came in when I opened the door. I saw at least one mattress against the door."
Tenants were due to receive new mattresses that had been stacked
in hallways throughout the largely residential $150-a-week hotel.
Stark, a hotel housekeeper, said a "moderately buzzed" Moore had talked about leaving the hotel during a conversation about a week before the blaze. Moore expressed fear about one man in particular and said she would like to "burn" several other men, Stark added.
But Stark said he did not perceive that remark as a threat because the word "burn" can mean different things such as cheat or steal.
Asked by Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Clifton whether he wished he had followed up on her remark, Stark replied, "Yes."
"Why?" the prosecutor asked. "Because there was a fire," Stark said.
Daniel Heenan, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives based in Las Vegas, said investigators concluded the fire started outside Birch's door.
"Our conclusion was the only way the fire could have started is if those mattresses were set on fire," Heenan said. "We had tons of indicators" to pinpoint the origin of the fire.
Clifton called eight witnesses Tuesday and said he only planned to call one more witness Monday.
Moore, who's being represented by public defender Jennifer Lunt, has been held in jail without bail since Nov. 1.
The death toll at the Mizpah doubled two other deadly fires, a 1962 blaze at the Golden Hotel and 1879's "Great Fire of Reno," which each killed six people.
The recently renovated hotel, built in 1922 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, was equipped with smoke alarms but not sprinklers.