Second ex-UMass student admits to causing 2018 Amherst fire

  • The aftermath of an April 2018 fire at 285 Main St., Amherst. STAFF FILE PHOTO/Carol Lollis

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 29, 2019

NORTHAMPTON — Another former University of Massachusetts Amherst student pleaded guilty Oct. 25 in Hampshire Superior Court to charges that originated from an April 2018 Amherst apartment fire started by fireworks lit indoors that displaced 21 people and seriously injured another.

Laban K. Christenson, 25, of Waltham, pleaded guilty to one count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury and four counts of wanton destruction of property over $1,200.

Christenson’s assault and battery charge was continued without a finding for a period of two years; he was sentenced to two years’ probation to be served concurrently with the assault and battery sentence for the four destruction of property charges. Christenson, along with Andrew Ho, another student involved in the case, will have to pay joint restitution to Jones Group Realty and students who lived below the apartment.

Ho, 24, of Hyannis, pleaded guilty to identical charges Oct. 22, when the assault and battery charge against Ho was also continued without a finding for a period of two years; he was placed on two years of probation for the destruction of property charges.

Amherst police and fire departments were called to 285 Main St. for a report of smoke and fireworks around 2:50 a.m. on April 29, 2018. Assistant District Attorney Matthew Thomas said in court that Christenson was the person who physically shot a Roman candle firework in a Snapchat video taken by Ho after a night of drinking.

Christenson and Ho left Ho’s apartment after the fireworks went off to get food at McDonald’s and to make their way to a dormitory, Thomas said. The still-burning embers from the fireworks were not extinguished, starting the fire behind a couch in the living room, Thomas said. One of Ho’s friends stayed in the apartment and suffered second and third-degree burns — though Thomas said that person has since forgiven both Christenson and Ho.

But Thomas said some of the victims, specifically the people living below Ho, are not as forgiving. 

“Both of the persons that put in victim impact statements indicate their lives (were) thrown into utter turmoil as a result of this needless act,” Thomas said. “It boggles the mind as to why this seemed like a good idea.”

Christenson’s defense attorney, Thomas A. Kokonowski, called Christenson’s actions “clearly reckless” and “inexcusable.” Kokonowski said that when he first took the case, Thomas gave him a snapshot of the case and reportedly said “‘You know, it is not cool that bros from UMass can think they can party all day and shoot fireworks in their apartment.’

“And he was right,” Kokonowski said. “And Mr. Christenson understands that.”

Kokonowski said Christenson was remorseful for his actions, physically showing his contrition every time they met.

“There is actual emotion for the recognition and the reminder of what it is that he did,” Kokonowski said.

Thomas said he expects the case against a third student, Conor C. Murnane to be dismissed by the state after there was a discussion on who exactly was responsible for filming the incident and physically setting off the fireworks. Judge Richard Carey presided over the case.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.