Vermont Arsonist Enters Plea, Gets Prison Term

Calm and contrite, an accused arsonist diagnosed with multiple personality disorder entered “no contest” pleas Wednesday over a pair of fires — one of which she blamed on an alter ego named “Blackie Rage.”

The case, which took nearly three years to prosecute, posed a simple question: Which of Cheryle D. Potwin’s “alters” was responsible?

“…it raises a fascinating forensic and legal issue: Who is it you’re holding accountable, if in fact a person has multiple alters, some of whom appreciate what is going on and some of whom do not?” said prosecutor Robert Sand.

“How does the court system hold that person accountable?” he said.

According to psychiatric experts, Potwin, 52, of Sharon, suffers from “dissociative identity disorder,” the favored term now for what was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Potwin, who suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse as a child, developed the multiple personalities in response to it, experts testified.

Among her “alters”: a 9-year-old boy named Buddy, a childlike “Timmy,” someone named “Jason” and the one known as “Blackie Rage,” whom the others blame for one of the Sept. 29, 2006 fires.

Both occurred the same day, in towns 31/2 miles apart.

In one, police said, she set a series of fires in a home in Woodstock that caused damage but hurt no one. In the other, two cats and a parrot perished after Potwin set a series of fire in the basement, causing extensive damage to the home of a therapist at a Veterans Administration medical center who had treated Potwin — a U.S. Air Force veteran — in 2004, police said.

Potwin, who was originally charged with arson, attempted arson and two counts of burglary, planned an insanity defense at her trial.

A state expert — one of four to weigh in — vouched for her disorder after examining Potwin. Two others had the same diagnosis, but all differed on the degree to which Potwin could control her “alters.”

“Right off the bat, that just presented a level of complexity to this case that you don’t typically see,” said Sand, the prosecutor.

The experts involved in the case differed on how much control she had over her “alters,” and the case was headed to trial before the plea agreement was reached this week.

Under it, she pleaded no contest to arson and attempted arson, and two burglary counts were dismissed. In exchange, she was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison, all but 46 months of it suspended. Counting time served, she now must spend another year in prison.

She also was ordered to make $7,000 in restitution.

Sand said the plea agreement sought to strike a balance between Potwin’s mental health needs and the public’s right to safety.

Calling Potwin’s background “unbelievably tragic,” defense attorney Kevin Griffin said the case was the most complicated one he’d worked on in 27 years of criminal defense work.

“I don’t think I’ve ever represented someone who has been more physically, sexually and emotionally abused than she has,” he said.

In court Wednesday, Potwin was nothing but polite and calm, a marked contrast to an earlier hearing in which she refused to enter the courtroom, then carried on through the hearing.

Politely engaging in dialogue with Judge Kathleen Manley, Potwin — her shoulder length strawberry blonde hair combed neatly — told the judge she endorsed the plea, in part because it spares her family the spectacle of a trial.

“My family has been through more than enough the least three years,” she said.

Outside court, her husband Chris Potwin said: “I just want her to get treatment. That’s all I wanted from the very beginning.”

She’ll get it: One of the terms of plea calls for her to undergo mental health counseling while in custody and continuing after she’s released.