Charges dropped against ex-lawyer accused of setting girlfriend on fire

ST. PAUL -- When a former lawyer was accused of setting his longtime girlfriend on fire while she slept in their Burnsville condominium, the story was picked up by news organizations based in New York and the United Kingdom.

ST. PAUL -- When a former lawyer was accused of setting his longtime girlfriend on fire while she slept in their Burnsville condominium, the story was picked up by news organizations based in New York and the United Kingdom.

The allegations against David John Gherity were even turned into an animated cartoon that appeared on YouTube, showing a man dousing a sleeping woman with nail polish and hair spray and tossing a match.

Gherity was “raked over the coals” in the local and national media because he is a former a lawyer with a troubled past, according to his lawyer, Robert Miller.

“People don’t like lawyers,” Miller said. “No one thought for a moment that he might be innocent.”

But even though the victim in the case said “the bastard tried to burn my house down,” according to a criminal complaint, it turned out that Gherity had a solid alibi.


Miller said Gherity, 61, had been at work in St. Paul all day on the day that the fire occurred, Feb. 9, 2014, and time-stamped videos at the landscaping and snow-removal company where he worked backed up his claim.

“It’s one of those sort of alibis where not only do you have an alibi, you have a video of the alibi,” Miller said.

And on Monday, two and a half months after Gherity was charged with first-degree assault and arson, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom announced that charges against Gherity were dismissed because “further investigation in the matter has determined that Gherity has a substantiated alibi at the time this incident occurred.”

“The matter remains under investigation at this time,” according to the county attorney’s office.

“We’re not certain how it happened,” Backstrom said of the fire. But he said the evidence shows Gherity was not present at the time of the fire.

“We concluded he should not have been charged,” Backstrom said.

Miller said Gherity spent more than two months in jail until he was able to get out on bail.

“He sat in their knowing he was innocent and still loves this woman, and knowing he can’t have any contact with her,” Miller said. “He was not treated well in jail. People don’t like people who burn people up.”


Miller said he doesn’t fault the county attorney’s office for charging Gherity, but he said police should have looked sooner at the video that cleared him.

“It took them a long time to look that video over, more than two months,” he said.

“We were not aware of the video at the time he was charged,” Backstrom said. “As soon as it came to our attention, it was reviewed and it was reviewed as quickly as possible.”

Backstrom said the authenticity of the video had to be verified by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

“It took some time, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.

According to a timeline provided by the Dakota County Attorney’s office Monday, the fire occurred on Feb. 9, 2014, and Gherity refused to provide a statement to Burnsville police on Feb. 11.

A criminal complaint charging Gherity with one count of first-degree assault and two counts of first-degree arson and a warrant for his arrest were filed April 1 in Dakota County District Court.

When he was arrested by Burnsville police on April 2, Gherity told police he had an alibi and could be seen on video surveillance, according to the county attorney’s office. The police prepared a search warrant to get a copy of the video which was executed on April 7. The video was initially examined by a Burnsville police officer and then submitted to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for analysis to determine its authenticity.


The Dakota County Attorney’s Office received results of the BCA analysis on Thursday, according to the county attorney’s office, and the charges were dismissed that afternoon.

According to the original criminal complaint, the Burnsville Fire Department responded to a report of a smoke alarm at a condominium on the 12000 block of Parkwood Drive at 2:44 p.m. Feb. 9, and found Gherity’s girlfriend of 10 years inside, sitting at a table and on fire. The woman had lost an ear as a result of burns including third-degree burns to the face, head, neck, upper right leg and lower left leg, the complaint said. Alcohol bottles were in the area where the victim was found, the complaint said.

The complaint said the woman told fire department medical personnel that “he lit the fire,” and “the bastard tried to burn my house down.”

The complaint also said Gherity showed up at the Hennepin County Medical Center, where the victim was being treated, and he had soot on him and smelled like smoke from a house fire.

“Medical personnel asked Gherity if he was in the fire and Gherity stated he was not and that he was checking the condominium out afterward,” the complaint said. “Later investigation revealed that this is inconsistent with the buildings records of when Gherity last entered that building.”

The complaint also said that the victim’s sister said the victim nodded her head in the hospital when she was asked “if Gherity did this.”

Police talked to the victim March 4, after she had awakened from a medically induced coma, the complaint said. The complaint said the woman told investigators she and Gherity were in the condominium together and “Gherity was stressed.” The victim had been drinking and had taken some medication, and Gherity was still there when she fell asleep, the complaint said. She woke up to the fire, the complaint said.

The victim’s sister said that Gherity suggested to her that nail polish, nail polish remover or hair spray used by the victim might have started her on fire, the complaint said. And an analysis of the victim’s clothing by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension showed a mixture of substances “including alcohol, lotion and possibly hairspray and fingernail polish remover,” the complaint said.


But the victim told police she does not use fingernail polish or polish remover and had not used hairspray for several months, the complaint said.

Gherity has criminal convictions in Minnesota for misdemeanor assault, disorderly conduct and possession of a dangerous weapon. He was suspended from practicing law and is not currently authorized to practice in Minnesota.

“We’re not disputing his background,” Miller said.

“It’s a tragic thing that she’s burned,” he said of the fire. But he said Gherity “couldn’t have done it. He’s now a free man.”

Miller said Gherity has not returned to work or been in direct contact with the woman since being freed.

Backstrom said his office did not issue a news release when Gherity was charged. But it did after the charges were dismissed.

“I hope all the media outfits that published stories about this will report that the charges are dismissed,” he said.



The Pioneer Press is media partner with Forum News Service.


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