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Friday, June 21, 2024

Man Sets Himself on Fire Near Courthouse Where Trump Is on Trial

A man set himself on fire on Friday afternoon near the Lower Manhattan courthouse where jurors were being chosen for the criminal trial of former President Donald J. Trump.

The man, who had lingered outside the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse earlier this week, doused himself with accelerant at around 1:35 p.m. in Collect Pond Park, across the street from the building. Onlookers screamed and started to run, and soon, bright orange flames engulfed the man. He threw leaflets espousing anti-government conspiracy theories into the air before setting himself on fire.

People rushed and tried to put out the flames, but the intensity of the heat could be felt from some distance.

After a minute or two, dozens of police officers arrived, running around and climbing over barricades to extinguish the blaze. The man was loaded into an ambulance and rushed to a hospital burn unit. He died on Friday night.

City officials identified the man as Max Azzarello, 37, of St. Augustine, Fla. Mr. Azzarello had appeared outside the courthouse on Thursday, holding a sign displaying the address of a website where the same pamphlets were uploaded. The top post of the website says, “I have set myself on fire outside the Trump Trial.”

Mr. Azzarello walked around Lower Manhattan earlier in the week, holding a sign on Wednesday critical of New York University at Washington Square Park before moving on Thursday to Collect Pond Park.

At the park on Thursday, Mr. Azzarello had held up various signs and at one point shouted toward a group of reporters gathered there, “Biggest scoop of your life or your money back!” One of his signs claimed that Mr. Trump and President Biden were “about to fascist coup us.”

Officials identified the man who set himself on fire as Max Azzarello, 37, of St. Augustine, Fla. He appeared outside the courthouse on Thursday. Credit…Nate Schweber for The New York Times

In an interview that day, he said his critical views of the American government were shaped by his research into Peter Thiel, the technology billionaire and political provocateur who is a major campaign donor, and into cryptocurrency.

Mr. Azzarello said he had relocated from Washington Square Park because with the cold weather, he thought more people would be outside the courthouse.

“Trump’s in on it,” Mr. Azzarello said on Thursday. “It’s a secret kleptocracy, and it can only lead to an apocalyptic fascist coup.”

Mr. Azzarello arrived in New York City sometime after April 13, the police said, and his family in St. Augustine did not know about his whereabouts until after the incident. While Mr. Azzarello was recently in Florida, he had connections to the New York City area and worked for Representative Tom Suozzi during his 2013 campaign for Nassau County executive on Long Island.

A man at a Brooklyn address associated with a possible relative of Mr. Azarello’s declined to comment on Thursday.

Over the past year, however, Mr. Azzarello’s behavior appeared to become more erratic. He was arrested three times in 2023 on misdemeanor charges in Florida, and he posted online in August that he had just spent three days in a psychiatric hospital.

Later that month, while dining at the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine, he threw a glass of wine at a framed autograph of former President Bill Clinton. He showed up to the hotel again, two days later on Aug. 21, stripped to his underwear and shouted profanities at guests while blasting music from a speaker.

Three days later, police arrested him for defacing and breaking signs belonging to several businesses. He took a pest control sign from the yard of one business that had warned passers-by to keep children and pets away for their safety. In comments to the police, he said that “the pest control company was there to exterminate children and dogs.”

His mug shot shows Mr. Azzarello sticking his tongue out.

In addition to his website, Mr. Azzarello was also active on social media, promoting anti-government literature on Instagram. Most of his online posts before the spring of 2022 were of his travels and his family, and he noted that his mother died in April 2022 from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

About a year later, he posted a photo of what appeared to be his Covid-19 vaccination card — defaced with the words “Super Ponzi” and the symbol for Bitcoin.

People who witnessed the fire said they were in disbelief as they saw Mr. Azzarello, who was in an area of the park reserved for supporters of Mr. Trump, toss the pamphlets into the air and then flames shoot toward the sky. Mr. Azzarello, who was wearing jeans and dark gray T-shirt, fell to the ground amid the fire.

Some of the pamphlets referred to New York University as a “mob front” and also mentioned former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Al Gore and the lawyer David Boies, who represented Mr. Gore in the 2000 presidential election recount. Another pamphlet contained anti-government conspiracy theories, though they did not point in a discernible political direction.

Most officers who responded to the fire on Thursday ran from the direction of the courthouse, which is a couple of hundred feet across the street; some struggled to immediately reach Mr. Azzarello because of steel barricades in the park.

Al Baker, a spokesman for the court system, said the trial schedule would not be affected, though one court officer had been taken to hospital because of the effects of smoke inhalation.

Fred Gates, 60, said he had been riding his bike through the park when he stopped to watch the Trump supporters and saw Mr. Azzarello getting ready to light himself on fire. Mr. Gates said he thought it was a prank or a performance until he saw the flames.

Another witness, Gideon Oliver, a civil rights lawyer, said he saw smoke rising from the park and a court officer rushing from a building carrying a fire extinguisher.

“When I saw and smelled the smoke I thought someone, I assumed one of the pro-Trump protesters, had lit a fire in the park,” Mr. Oliver said. “When I saw police and court officers running, I then thought it might have been a bomb.”

Mr. Azzarello stood tall as he poured the accelerant on himself and then held a flame at chest level. As people nearest him fled, others cried out as they realized what he was about to do.

Screams and shouts — though not from him — filled the air as the flames consumed him and he slowly collapsed.

Wesley Parnell, Alan Feuer, Chelsia Rose Marcius, Jan Ransom, Maria Cramer, Stefanos Chen, Nicholas Fandos and Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.

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