BRENTWOOD — A Kingston man has been found guilty of breaking into a convenience store to steal money for an expedited passport last year to visit an online girlfriend in Turkey and then setting a fire to cover his tracks.
A Rockingham County jury on Thursday convicted 45-year-old John Gates of arson, attempted arson, burglary, use of a Molotov cocktail (a bottle with flammable liquid and a wick), and being a felon in possession of a dangerous weapon.
"Gates’ computer was searched and revealed that he had an online relationship with a woman in Turkey. It was apparent that he was in love with this woman but she broke up with him just days before the fire. An online chat showed he was asking her close friend where she got off the bus from work and that he 'was coming' to Turkey to surprise this woman," Rockingham County Attorney Patricia Conway and state Fire Marshal Paul Parisi said in a joint statement following the conviction.
At trial, prosecutors said Gates used a crowbar to pry open a door to the vacant Chinese restaurant Asian Gourmet in Kingston in the early morning hours of Jan. 17, 2018, and then broke through a wall to access Carriage Towne Market, which was burglarized and damaged by fire.
Gates carried out the crime, prosecutors asserted, because he became obsessed after the woman broke off their relationship and he needed the money to get to Turkey.
Deputy County Attorney Jennifer Haggar said Gates is facing 37 to 74 years in state prison when sentenced. A sentencing date has not been set.
“We are grateful that the jury returned guilty verdicts on all charges and that a dangerous person has been convicted. The outstanding work of the New Hampshire Fire Marshal’s Office, Kingston Police, the ATF, FBI and the Manchester Fire Department resulted in the state being able to present such a strong case to the jury. We thank all the investigators and the witnesses for their time and commitment,” Haggar said.
Thursday’s verdict followed a week of testimony in Rockingham County Superior Court.
County prosecutors rested Wednesday as did Gates’s public defense team, who called no witnesses to testify.
Gates denied he was responsible.
His defense claimed sloppy work by investigators raised questions about the evidence that was gathered, specifically a pair of his boots that prosecutors said linked him to the crime scene.
Haggar insisted that footprints in the snow matched his boots and led from the back of the businesses in the Carriage Towne Plaza to an apartment at the Magnusson Farm where he lived a short distance away on Route 125.
“He wasn’t going for a stroll that night, ladies and gentlemen. He was trying to cover up his tracks and he was woefully unsuccessful at it,” Haggar told jurors during Wednesday’s closing arguments.
Haggar described Gates as a simple man who lived a rather secluded life. He had little money, but on the afternoon of the break-in and fire — while investigators were searching for clues — Gates was in the process of getting an expedited passport.
She claims there was about $400 missing from a cabinet in the market and that Gates was spending the money and making plans to travel to Turkey to surprise a woman who broke off an online relationship with him just a few weeks before the crimes.
Gates, she argued, was still in love.
“This is why he was so desperate to commit these crimes on Jan. 17,” Haggar said.
But public defender Larissa Kiers maintained that their relationship that began deteriorating in the fall of 2017 was unrelated.
“It’s a distraction. It has nothing to do with the facts of this case,” she said.
Kiers argued that there were really two sets of footprints because police had lost the track during their search and she repeatedly questioned the handling of evidence in the case.
She said the boots that prosecutors claim Gates was wearing at the time were mishandled by police and brought to the crime scene where they could have become “compromised evidence.” She said there was a “complete disregard for procedure and evidence contamination.”