BILOXI -- When Marvin Sanchez saw smoke coming from a vent in his apartment, he knew something was wrong.
Sanchez was bare-chested and about to get in the shower, but he testified Tuesday at the arson trial of Krystal Gonzalez that he instead went to his front door and looked out.
"As soon as I opened it up, it was like a dark cloud of smoke coming to me," Sanchez told a jury and Circuit Judge Chris Schmidt.
Harrison County prosecutors established on opening day of the trial Sanchez was the hero of the evening at Arbor View Apartments in D'Iberville, where he alerted other residents to the fire before the building of 20 apartments burned down. Meanwhile, Gonzalez left the apartments without calling authorities to report the fire, testimony showed.
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Nobody disputes Gonzalez started the fire, but her attorney, Michael Crosby of Gulfport, said during opening arguments it was an accident. She lit a candle on a dresser that ignited a dried flower arrangement, he said. The fire crawled down the dresser, set the carpet ablaze and spread, even though Gonzalez tried to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher.
Prosecutor Scott Lusk told a different story during his opening argument. He said Gonzalez and her live-in boyfriend at the time, Adam Dubuisson, spent Mardi Gras Day 2014 watching a parade in Biloxi, drinking and fighting. That evening, they went their separate ways.
Gonzalez returned to the apartment, having forgotten her phone, to find Dubuisson had not yet come home, Lusk said. She called him from a pay phone at a corner convenience store, urging him to come home. Dubuisson refused. Gonzalez then called her boyfriend from a computer in the apartment on FaceTime, which allowed them to see one another.
"She is aggravated with him," Lusk said. "She is telling him, 'You need to come home and cook. I am hungry.'"
Again, Dubuisson refused. So, Lusk said, she took a long lighter, turned the computer around so Dubuisson could watch, walked to the closet and set his clothes on fire.
"Adam's like, 'Whatever,'" Lusk said, "'You're on your own. I'm not coming home.' The defendant lets the fire get out of control. She watches it burn, rage."
Lusk said she left without calling 911.
Crosby stood and said, "We have a very different version of what took place that night."
He portrayed his client, 27-year-old Gonzalez, as a hardworking woman with bad taste in men. After she and her boyfriend fought and she went home, he said, she lit some candles. The fire got out of hand. "She panics," Crosby said. "She tries to put the fire out." He said Dubuisson texted a friend and asked for a ride home, but never mentioned Gonzalez intentionally started a fire in his apartment, as prosecutors claim.
Crosby said investigators from the D'Iberville Police Department and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms grilled Gonzalez without an attorney present. He said they coerced and threatened Dubuisson until he agreed Gonzalez had started the fire on purpose.
"I've never seen such a one-sided investigation," Crosby told the jury. "They were determined to try and convict Krystal . It was like that from the beginning."
Sanchez was the first of several witnesses prosecutors called to testify. He said he called 911 to report the fire, then returned to the third floor, where his apartment was, and began banging on doors to get residents out. On the second floor, where the fire started, he said he encountered a tenant with children, and helped put blankets around them against the chill as they evacuated. He found more children on the first floor with an elderly woman, he said.
"Everybody was running," Sanchez said. "Fire was all over the building."
The fire was out of control by the time firefighters from a number of agencies arrived, but they managed to contain it to one building in the large complex.