Judge to review confessions of accused arsonist; trial expected to conclude Wednesday

Defendant Andre DeCosta, left, listens during his trial at the Beaufort County Courthouse Tuesday morning.
Defendant Andre DeCosta, left, listens during his trial at the Beaufort County Courthouse Tuesday morning. Jonathan Dyer/The Island Packet

A judge will decide today whether to allow the confessions of an accused arsonist and robber as evidence in his trial.

The trial of Andre Leon DeCosta, 31, of Bluffton, recessed Tuesday afternoon after a judge said he wanted to review whether DeCosta's statements to police were made voluntarily.

DeCosta faces charges of arson, burglary and grand larceny after allegedly setting fire Nov. 29 to Dan's Fan City at 22 Plantation Park Drive and, then moments later, breaking into Ligato's Fine Jewelry at nearby 80 Baylor Drive. The trial is expected to resume at 2:30 p.m. today.

Judge Thomas Cooper said he will review videotape and transcripts from a five-hour interview with Bluffton police in which DeCosta allegedly confessed to the arson and robbery to determine if the confession is admissible.

Matthew Walker , DeCosta's public defender, argued that the defendant only confessed after a lengthy interrogation by at least four police officers, one of whom told him that they would write a letter to a judge asking that he receive probation.

In the interview, Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister told DeCosta that he couldn't make guarantees, but that he would try to see DeCosta wouldn't be considered a "serial arsonist." McAllister told DeCosta a man who confessed to several arsons in Palmetto Bluff received probation.

"I'm gonna make the same offer I made to the other guy, and I'm a man of my word," McAllister says in the video. "But you gotta talk, you gotta come clean."

Police also admitted to lying to DeCosta in saying that samples from swabs of his hands matched accelerants found at Dan's Fan City.

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Deputy Solicitor Sean Thornton argued DeCosta knew police could not guarantee anything and that any sentence would be determined by a judge.

Cooper also will rule on whether a second confession DeCosta made to a South Carolina Law Enforcement officer Dec. 3 is admissible.

In that confession, DeCosta said he and Anthony Hamilton, also charged in the arson and burglary, rode around in Hamilton's vehicle earlier on the day of the incidents and tried to think of "criminal things" they could do to get money. He said they rode by the jewelry store and decided they could "get" items there to sell.

DeCosta told the SLED agent the two men threw a rock to break the glass door of Dan's Fan City, tossed a gas can into the building, and then set the gas ablaze, according to testimony.

Hamilton's trial date has not been set.


Earlier in the trial Tuesday, police testified a suspicious car stopped minutes after Ligato's was robbed contained a bag full of jewelry and watches.

Bluffton police Staff Sgt. Christian Gonzales said he was leaving the scene of the break-in when he saw a suspicious car driving slowly about a half mile away. He stopped the car at the Walgreens drug store on Simmonsville Road. Lying in the back seat of the car was DeCosta, he said.

DeCosta told the officer his name was "Michael" and that he was heading home from work in Beaufort, Gonzales said.

Hamilton, 21, of Walterboro, was driving the vehicle, Gonzales said.

The car contained an ax with a piece of broken glass embedded in it, two pairs of black and white gloves, two black ski masks, two bandannas, dark clothing, and yellow and blue cigarette lighters, according to testimony.

The tape from a 911 call reporting the fan-shop fire also was played Tuesday.

Authorities say the call was a diversion placed by one of the two suspects so they could rob the jewelry store. The man who called 911 said his name was "Michael," and that he was driving along U.S. 278 when he saw flames at a business near the Dairy Queen.

Police also found a cell phone in the car Hamilton was driving that had the same phone number the 911caller gave dispatchers.

Thornton, the deputy solicitor, said he did not expect to call additional witnesses.

The trial is expected to conclude today.

Follow reporter Cassie Foss at twitter.com/LCBlotter.com.

Related content:

Trial set today for Bluffton man accused of 2010 arson, robbery, July 25, 2011

Three Bluffton shops back in business after arsons, Jan. 24, 2011

2 arrested for string of Bluffton arsons; another man to be freed, Nov. 29, 2010