NAHANT — Victor Rosario spent 32 years of his life in prison for a crime that he did not commit.
“I’ll remain innocent until the day I die,” he said to a roomful of residents at the Nahant Public Library on Saturday.
Rosario said his trouble started in 1982. He was buying drugs in Lowell when the apartment building next door went up in flames. He heard screaming children and put his fist through a window in an effort to rescue them. The next day, when he made the local newspaper for his attempted rescue, he became law enforcement’s main suspect.
They brought him into the police station and interrogated him for more than eight hours, he said. Rosario, who spoke minimal English at the time, signed a confession that he barely understood. He was also told there was an eyewitness who stated they saw him in front of the building right after the blaze began.
In the confession, it was stated that Rosario threw Molotov cocktails into the Lowell building. He was convicted of arson and eight murders in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison. He was not exonerated until 2014.
“The system took advantage of me,” Rosario said.
The driving force behind Rosario’s exoneration was attorney Andrea Petersen, who met him in 2006 during his stay at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk. When she began representing him, after only a few years of practicing law, Petersen said she considered his case “seemingly impossible.”
“The difference between me and all of his previous lawyers is that I believed him,” said Petersen. “Even with that signed confession and eyewitness.”
Petersen hired a team to help prove Rosario’s innocence, including private investigator John Nardizzi, who lives in Nahant. Nardizzi is the one who invited Petersen and Rosario, along with Rosario’s wife, Beverly, to share their story at the library.
“Victor was convicted of arson, he was innocent and proved it, but he wasn’t exonerated until three decades later,” Nardizzi said.
There were three things that needed to happen in order to get Victor Rosario exonerated, according to Petersen.
She had to knock out the arson conviction, which she did by hiring two experts to look at the fire evidence again. The eyewitness never stated they saw Victor Rosario throw anything or hold a flaming bottle, so Petersen was able to debunk their testimony.
When it came to throwing out the signed confession, Petersen found medical records that stated Victor Rosario was a heavy drinker. Then, she found a doctor who testified Victor Rosario was suffering from delirium tremens, confusion usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol, the night of the interrogation.
With all of the hard work by Petersen and her team, the court gave Victor Rosario a new trial. Petersen’s hired experts reexamined the fire evidence and found that the case’s original prosecutor did not prove the fire was caused by arson.
“Even after everything, the prosecutors never looked at what happened and said they made a mistake,” said Petersen.
Last week, Victor Rosario moved forward with a civil lawsuit against Lowell, its police department, and its fire department.
Throughout the three decades Victor Rosario spent in prison, he said his faith and wife kept him going. They met while he was incarcerated, after she became his teacher.
He said he asked God every day for a wife. When he walked into his first day of class at the prison and saw her, he said God had a real sense of humor. They were not able to connect on any level outside of the classroom or Victor Rosario would get sent to the hole.
By 1992, Beverly Rosario quit her prison teaching job and Victor Rosario was moved to another institution, she began visiting him every day. One year later, they got married in prison.
“If I didn’t drive to see him, we had our 20-minute phone calls which either got cut short or were listened to,” said Beverly Rosario. “We had to have our own codes over the phone.”
Beverly Rosario said she waited 22 years for her husband to get out of prison. He may have been home with an ankle bracelet on in 2014, but, according to her, he was not free until he was clear of everything in 2017.
Now an ordained minister, Victor Rosario works at Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston. Together, he and his wife administer Remember Those in Captivity Ministries, Inc., a prison ministry where they help those in prison and close to release prepare for the outside world.
“The system is never going to change,” said Victor Rosario. “But you, the next generation, can change the system.”