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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Niels Conrad Was Trying to Kill Himself, Not His Mother, When He Set House on Fire

Posted By on Thu, Dec 20, 2012 at 12:38 PM

click to enlarge The Public Defender puts out yet another fire
  • The Public Defender puts out yet another fire

A San Francisco jury acquitted a 55-year-old man of seven counts of attempted murder, concluding that he wasn't trying to kill his elderly mother as well as police officers when he set fire to his family home.

Instead, the jury was convinced that the fire was nothing more than a botched suicide attempt by Niels Conrad, who had moved back into his childhood home with his mother just two months before the blaze.

According to the Public Defender's Office, jurors deliberated for five hours Wednesday before deciding that Conrad, a gifted neonatal intensive care nurse for 28 years, wasn't guilty of attempted murder of his mother, five police officers, and a fire investigator, said Conrad's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Hadi Razzaq.

The attempted murder charges included allegations of premeditation and deliberation; if convicted, Conrad was facing life in prison. Instead, the jury convicted Conrad of one count of arson of personal property and a lesser charge of unlawfully causing a fire.

Conrad was arrested March 4, 2010, after cops found him lying in the backyard of his burning childhood home on Broderick Street with singed hair and a laceration to his wrist. Conrad had moved in with his mother less than two months earlier after a series of setbacks, including colon cancer, a heart attack, loss of his job, and foreclosure of his home, Razzaq said.

On the day Conrad was arrested, his mother had told him she was kicking him out, and the two started arguing. During the dispute, Conrad threatened to kill himself, saying he'd rather die than be homeless. At one point, Conrad set fire to a paper bag and stomped it out on his mother's rug, leaving a small burn. Angry at her son, Conrad's mother, who was 81 at the time, called the cops.

Conrad went down to the basement to gather his things. According to his testimony, as Conrad put gas into his moped, he decided he was going to kill himself by self-immolation; Conrad began to pour the gasoline on and around him, but there was too little fluid left.

When that failed, he tried to cut his wrists with a paint-can opener, but it was not sharp enough to reach his artery. While looking for a razor blade, Conrad heard a whooshing sound he thought was the furnace. That's when he realized he was engulfed in flames, according to the Public Defender's Office. Conrad staggered to the backyard as he gasped for breath, and collapsed.

Meanwhile, police and a fire investigator were upstairs talking to Conrad's mother when they noticed heavy black smoke pouring through the heating vents. Firefighters extinguished the fire, with Conrad being the only person injured in the blaze. He was taken to the hospital, where he explained to the cops how he had tried to kill himself.

"Mr. Conrad never had the intent to harm anyone other than himself," Razzaq said. "He simply had no hope that the pain and suffering he was experiencing would ever go away."

During the trial, Conrad testified about his lifelong struggle with depression, including two other suicide attempts, his devastation over losing his home and career, and his fear of being homeless. A fire investigator who reviewed the evidence also testified, saying that the physical and forensic evidence showed that the fire was unintentionally started when the gas vapors on the ground were ignited by the water heater's standing pilot light.

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About The Author

Erin Sherbert

Erin Sherbert

Erin Sherbert has been Online News Editor for SF Weekly since 2010. She's a Texas native and has a closet full of cowboy boots to prove it.


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