Hotel arson trial begins

GREENVILLE, S.C. - The man accused of setting a hotel fire that killed six people was obsessed with one of his victims - a stripper who perished in the blaze with her baby boy, prosecutors said Monday during the opening of his trial.


Eric Preston Hans, 37, is charged with one federal count of arson resulting in death. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Mr. Hans used packing crates and Styrofoam to set the fire while guests were sleeping during an early morning in January 2004, prosecutors said.

Authorities have said the fire started on the hotel's third floor, near a rear stairwell, where Melba Leshawn Canty, 21, and her 15-month-old son, Jaden, were sleeping. Ms. Canty's boyfriend and Jaden's father, Zachary Cromer, also was asleep in the room. He and several other guests were injured in the fire.

Mr. Hans hung out at the strip club where Ms. Canty danced and had an "obsession" with her, Assistant U.S. Attorney Regan Pendleton said. He would regularly run the dancers' errands.

"He was their taxi driver and he was their gopher," Ms. Pendleton said. "He was always there, doing anything they asked him to do, but he didn't matter."

Mr. Hans set the fire to get attention, prosecutors said.

"You will learn that after he lit that fire, he wasn't invisible anymore," she said.

Ms. Pendleton described how Mr. Hans went to the club after the fire started and told people there the hotel was on fire - before police and firefighters had arrived on the scene.

"Preston Hans knew the Comfort Inn was on fire before they did," she said.

Mr. Hans has maintained his innocence since he was first questioned the day after the fire. His attorney, Ben Stepp, said the trial would be emotional for the jury and described "a heated and tumultuous" relationship between Ms. Canty and Mr. Cromer.

Prosecutors called several hotel employees to testify about the fire. Night manager Bill Wickliffe said a lock on a hallway door was not working and anyone could have entered the building.

E.M. Blair, who was staying in a Comfort Inn room just beneath where the blaze began, testified that after the fire alarms went off, he ran up to the third floor.

"It was just covered in smoke, top to bottom," he said. "But there was no noise. ... I heard no noises whatsoever."

The government played several recordings of 911 calls.

"We're trapped on the fourth floor of the Comfort Inn," one woman cried into the phone. "We're on fire."

As the combined 13 minutes of audio were played, several victims' family members in the courtroom began to cry.