NEW YORK - It was a cold morning on Dec. 4, 1980.
A fire started in the third-floor conference center of the Stouffer's Inn in Harrison, a town in Westchester County. The space was filled with executives and employees from several unrelated companies having meetings.
The fire started around 10:20 a.m. Within just a few minutes, 26 people would lose their lives. Most of the victims were middle-aged men on business trips.
"My father was only 39 years old—I was only in fourth grade when it happened," said David Feete, now 48.
His father worked for a company called Arrow Electronics.
"He was one of 13 executives who died in one of the rooms," Feete said. "It changes everything. it's just—my family, my immediate family and my extended family, were devastated."
Nearly four decades later, he still has questions.
"The cause of the fire was never fully known," he said. "I've been trying to make steps to get closure."
So he reached out to FOX 5 NY's true crime series called The Tape Room.
We tracked down former prosecutor Geoffrey Orlando.
"Here's the problem with arson: they are the most difficult cases to prove," Orlando said.
In the early 1980s, Orlando worked the case for the Westchester Country District Attorney's Office.
"We investigated every possible aspect, every vendor, every visitor, every cook, every chamber maid," he said.
Investigators eventually zeroed in on a hotel employee named Luis Marin, who told conflicting stories.
"We interviewed him four times," Orlando said.
Investigators said Marin, who was in the country illegally from Guatemala, set that fire so he could heroically put it out and keep his job.
"They can't fire a hero and so he would get his job back and then he could go to the immigration authorities and they would give him a green card for being a hero," Orlando said.
But the fire got out of control, investigators said.
Marin claimed that wasn't true.
According to Orlando, Marin later admitted that he may have accidentally spilled Sterno, a jellylike fuel placed under coffee urns in the area where the fire started.
The jury didn't buy it. The verdict was unanimous: Guilty.
But just four days later, the judge reversed the murder and arson convictions. The judge said the evidence was legally insufficient. Orlando, the judge insisted, was too persuasive. The judge even described Orlando's summation as brilliant but ruled it went beyond the facts.
"It was beyond heartbreaking," Orlando said.
The DA's office appealed to overrule the judge's decision. But the appeal failed, and the Stouffer's Inn case faded from the headlines with many families unsure what to think.
Now after all these years, FOX 5 NY is shedding light on a new perspective from an investigator who worked the scene 39 years ago.
"My first name is Gregory, my last is Albanese, and December 4, 1980, I was a criminal investigator in the DA's office of Westchester County," Albanese told FOX 5 NY.
He's never spoken publicly about the case before.
"I don't believe that the real scenario is understood by everybody on this case," he told us.
He said that yes, initial tests showed a gasoline-like substance, indicating arson.
"It was a finding of hydrocarbon, which is a base chain element of petroleum product, i.e. gasoline," Albanese said.
But he said there was a later test of another slab of concrete not related to the fire.
"We found the same presence of hydrocarbons," he said.
Albanese said he believes that proved that there wasn't an elevated level of accelerant at the point of origin.
"They used some sort of a curing agent which helps concrete set up in cold weather and this had hydrocarbons in it," Albanese said.
His supervisors at the time, who have since died, disagreed, he said.
Albanese said he now believes that Marin's story is plausible.
"At the eleventh hour, he came in and told the right story, that he dropped a Sterno. He could have very easily thought he put this fire out but he, in fact, he didn't," Albanese said. "That the cloth, cloth skirting down to the floor had actually had caught fire. And there was a big cook rack next to it also which is a fuel load and once that got going, you know, that was the fire."
Orlando remains unconvinced.
"I sleep at night. I know he did it and I have no remorse about him being convicted," Orlando told FOX 5 NY.
He is now in private practice and has also taught several college-level law classes at local universities.
This case, he said, is unforgettable.
"You live it every single day. And I tell my students sometimes I break down and cry," Orlando said. "I can't stop the tears when I think of those poor people. I saw the dead bodies.
The Stouffer's tragedy, along with another deadly fire at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, did eventually lead to massive safety overhauls in the hotel industry from sprinklers to emergency exits and more.
"We can't even tell how many lives were saved by this afterwards," Feete said. "I'm glad the laws were changed, not that the fire happened."
He started a website hoping to connect with family members of other victims.
"They need to be remembered, they lived, they had people to love them, and we don't forget," Feete said.
If you want to suggest a case for The Tape Room, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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