Joshua A. Hart, 23, of Athol, peers out from behind a bulletproof glass partition at Orange District Court Friday morning during his arraignment on charges stemming from a deadly home invasion in Orange on Oct. 5. His accomplice, Brittany E. Smith, 27, also of Athol, was arraigned on similar charges Friday. The pair were captured in Virginia on Oct. 8 and brought to Massachusetts on Wednesday. Photo by Jared Robinson

Suspects in deadly home invasion enter pleas

Both ordered held without bail
Thomas Harty will be remembered as a “very kind, generous and vibrant gentleman.” — Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan

ORANGE — Joshua A. Hart, 23, and Brittany E. Smith, 27, both of Athol and suspects in the home invasion that left Thomas Harty, 95, deceased and his wife Joanna Fisher gravely wounded, pled not guilty at their arraignments in Orange District Court on Friday. They are due back in court on Dec. 20 and Judge Laurie MacLeod ordered both to be held without bail until that date. Hart is being held in the Franklin County House of Correction in Greenfield, and Smith in the Western Mass. Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee. Their court appointed lawyers did not argue for bail.

The statement of facts issued by the Northwestern District Attorney’s office following the hearings paints a grisly scene of an unprovoked attack on an elderly couple at home watching television, and that they chose their targets based on the style of car the couple owned. 

According to the document, at approximately 9:15 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 6 the Orange Police Department had been contacted regarding a home invasion that had occurred the previous evening at 581 East River St., commonly known as Airport Road. Further investigation found that the couple, Harty and Fisher, had been watching television when they were attacked by a white male and a white female inside their home after 7:30 p.m. The two suspects entered the home through the door off the garage and began immediately attacking the victims. 

Upon entry, Fisher was immediately struck in the head with a hard object, after which both she and Harty were beaten and stabbed. The attack lasted approximately two hours, during which Fisher’s throat was cut. Fisher later reported that the female suspect had asked the male suspect to help her suffocate Fisher as she was unable to cut Fisher’s throat.

Mr. Harty died within the home following the attack after suffering stab wounds and being suffocated with a pillow. 

The suspects then ransacked the house in search of money. Among other things they took the victims’ credit and debit cards and the keys to the victim’s silver/gray 2003 Toyota Corolla station wagon with which they used to flee the scene. 

After the victim’s fled, Fisher, who it notes is wheelchair bound, crawled in an effort to call for help. She had been stabbed, beaten and had a cut to her throat. She learned the suspects had disabled the home phone and had stolen Harty’s cell phone. She took refuge inside her home until home healthcare workers made a regularly scheduled appearance at about 9 a.m., nearly 12 hours after the suspects fled the home. 

Survivor Life-Flighted 

When the workers discovered Ms. Fisher, they summoned help and she was life-flighted to UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. Prior to her transport, Fisher described the attackers as a white male, 5-foot, 8-inches to 5-foot, 9-inches tall with facial hair, and a white female who was slender, and had both dark hair and dark eyes. 

Within hours of the suspects fleeing the scene, an attempted use of Harty’s credit card was made at a Walmart in the Worcester area. This was followed by a debit card purchase for the same merchandise using Fisher’s card. Video surveillance from the store showed a vehicle that matched that of Harty’s Toyota Corolla. The two suspects, Hart and Smith, were recorded in the video exiting the vehicle and entering the Walmart together. Video surveillance also clearly depicted the suspects shopping together and making the purchase with the stolen debit card. Upon viewing the video, officers involved in the investigation immediately recognized Hart and Smith, who also matched the description given by Fisher. 

Arrest Warrants requested

On Friday, Mass. State Police detectives assigned to the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office obtained arrest warrants for Hart and Smith for larceny of a motor vehicle and receiving stolen property less then $250.

Throughout the investigation multiple out-of-state transactions were recorded on Fisher’s debit card. The value of those transactions exceeds $250.

On Saturday morning, Oct. 8, the next day after the arrest warrant for Smith and Hart was entered into a national warrant database, the two were located and arrested without incident. They were found in a U-haul parked in a Walmart parking lot by members of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Department in Virgina. 

Following the issuance of Miranda Rights, and in post arrest interviews with the Rockbridge County sheriffs and later with detectives from the Mass. State Police, Hart admitted that he had armed himself prior to entering the home, murdered Harty and that he had tried to help Smith in her attempt to kill Fisher. Smith similarly admitted that she and Hart had worked together, armed themselves with a knife prior to coming to the residence, and worked with Hart to attempt to kill Fisher. 

Sought older model car

Hart told investigators that they checked homes in the area looking for an older model car — to avoid tracking technology — and a target that would have money to help the couple escape. Hart looked in the window of the home and observed Harty. They attempted to make entry into the home through a window and through the rear of the home, but were unsuccessful. Both defendants told investigators that they entered the victims’ garage, found the keys to the vehicle, and entered the home through a door in the garage. 

Hart immediately attacked Harty, and stabbed him with a knife. Smith struck and pushed Fisher from her wheelchair to the floor. Smith stabbed Fisher and cut her throat. 

They both admitted to taking the victims’ credit/debit cards, cash from the residence, Harty’s cell phone and the victims’ vehicle and fleeing the area. 

Wanted to avoid jail

Both Hart and Smith admitted that their intention was to steal the vehicle and enough money to make good on their escape and flee. Their motive was to avoid going to jail for the previous charge of motor vehicle theft from earlier in the week. Hart wanted to avoid going back to jail and Smith, drug treatment, and to start a new life. 

They are both being charged with one count first degree murder (which carries a penalty of life without possibility of parole), one count attempted murder (no minimum, up to 20 years in state prison), two counts of home invasion (10 years state prison /up to life), 2 counts armed robbery (no minimum, up to life), one count conspiracy (no minimum, up to 20 years in state prison), one count larceny over $250 (no minimum, up to five years in state prison), one count larceny of a motor vehicle (no minimum/up to 15 years in state prison);  and one count receiving stolen property (no minimum/up to 2.5 years in the house of correction.

The defendants face a mandatory sentence of life in state prison without the possibility of parole on the charge of murder. 

Bail Request

Given the strength of the Commonwealth’s evidence, the savage nature of the allegations in this case, the fact that both Smith and Hart immediately fled the state with the stated intention of avoiding jail time for relatively minor offenses, the fact that the crimes that they were apparently willing to commit involved the slaying of a 95-year-old man and savage beating and attempted murder of a 77-year-old woman, the fact that both Smith and Hart have out of state connections that span the entire country, and are now facing a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole if convicted of murder the Commonwealth requested that the defendants be held without the right to bail during the pendency of the case.

Following the hearings Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and the staff from his office, held a press conference outside of the jury courtroom on the fourth floor of the courthouse. 

Sullivan took a moment to explain the details of the case as they appear in the statement of facts, and formally thanked those in law enforcement who assisted in the apprehension of Hart and Smith, and especially the Orange Police Department in securing the scene upon their arrival. He also thanked all of the medical personnel who helped save Fisher’s life. 

Sullivan called it a “somber day for the justice system,” and referred to the home invasion as “horrific, senseless and brutal.” He also remembered Harty as a very kind, generous, and vibrant gentleman.”

Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Bucci confirmed that the suspects and victims had no previous interactions and were complete strangers. “These folks were minding their own business, they were living their life, they were watching TV that night and there was a home invasion of epic proportions that lasted almost two hours,” he said.

Orange Police Chief Craig Lundgren said that the event has been “devastating for the small town of Orange.”

“Everyone’s worried, everyone knows everyone else. These poor victims I’ve known my entire life. They are well known in the community and you want to go home at night thinking things like this don’t happen in Orange. But they do and it’s going to make the Orange Police Department more vigilant and we are going to do what we can do to keep our community safe,” Lundgren said.

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Athol Daily News

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225 Exchange Street
Athol, MA 01331
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