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A life overtaken by conspiracy theories: What led a man to set himself on fire outside a courthouse trying Trump?

A closer look at the path the man had traveled to this moment of self-destruction revealed a recent spiral into volatility, one marked by a worldview that had become increasingly confusing and disjointed -- and appeared to be unattached to any political party.
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 03:27 IST
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 03:27 IST

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New York: The journey that ended with a man setting himself on fire Friday outside the Manhattan courthouse where Donald Trump was being tried seemed to have begun in Florida, with a series of increasingly bizarre outbursts.

Standing in the afternoon chill, the man, Max Azzarello, 37, of St. Augustine, Florida., threw pamphlets into the air before dousing himself with an accelerant and setting his body ablaze. Police hurried to extinguish the flames, but officials said his injuries were grave, and he was being treated at a hospital burn unit.

The fire just a block or two from the courthouse appeared calculated to draw widespread attention, horrifying bystanders and temporarily overshadowing the momentous trial of a former president.

But a closer look at the path the man had traveled to this moment of self-destruction revealed a recent spiral into volatility, one marked by a worldview that had become increasingly confusing and disjointed -- and appeared to be unattached to any political party. His social media postings and arrest records suggest the immolation stemmed instead from a place of conspiracy theories and paranoia.

Until last summer, Azzarello seemed to have lived a relatively quiet life. After high school, where he was a member of a bowling team, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2009, with degrees in anthropology and public policy.

As a student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he earned a master's degree in city and regional planning in 2012, he was known for leaving supportive Post-it notes for classmates in the hallways and for his karaoke performances of Frank Sinatra and Disney tunes, said a former classmate, Katie Brennan.

"He was super curious about social justice and the way things 'could' be," Brennan said. "He was creative and adventurous."

He began a career in which, according to his LinkedIn profile, he moved among jobs in marketing, sales and technology. In 2013, he worked on the campaign of Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island, who was then running for Nassau County executive.

An old friend from high school, Steven Waldman, called Azzarello one of the smartest people he knew.

"He was a good friend and person and cared about the world," he said.

But there was cause for concern, too.

"He began to talk about things -- he was obsessed and had a lot of strong feelings," said Waldman's mother, Carol Waldman. "He began to be preoccupied with these kinds of thoughts."

By last year, he had apparently settled in St. Augustine, where he lived in a modest apartment near the Matanzas River in that historic city. He was a pleasant if sometimes peculiar neighbor.

"An extremely nice person," said Larry Altman, property manager at his apartment building, who added: "He had political views that I would not consider mainstream. He called our government and the world government a Ponzi scheme."

But there were no signs that he was harboring an urge to harm himself, Altman said.

"If you met Max, he'd shake your hand, and you'd have a nice conversation," he said. "He'd treat you with respect."

He was clearly deeply affected by the loss of his mother, however. Elizabeth Azzarello died on April 6, 2022, near Sea Cliff, New York, on Long Island, where she had fought pulmonary disease, Azzarello wrote on Instagram in April 2022.

"I am immensely proud to say that she navigated the awful challenges of this disease with strength, dignity and spirit through the very end," he wrote.

After this loss, his old friends saw a change. "That was around the time when he became more outspoken," Steven Waldman said. "They were close, and they had a good relationship. He was heartbroken."

By the following year, the clarity Azzarello had shown in writing of his grief was gone, and a troubled image emerged.

In March 2023, he listed his profession on LinkedIn as "Research Investigator," self-employed. In June of that year, he tagged Brennan and several others to make sure they had seen something he had written. She described it as a "manifesto" and called him immediately and tried to intervene. Eventually she wrote to one of his family members to make sure that they were aware that he was in crisis, she said.

About five months later, in early August 2023, he posted on Facebook about visiting a mental health treatment facility: "Three days in the psych ward, and all I got were my new favorite socks."

Days later, in picturesque St. Augustine, he went for dinner at the Casa Monica Hotel on Cordova Street. Afterward, Azzarello walked into the lobby, approached an autograph left by former President Bill Clinton, who had signed the wall several years earlier, and threw a glass of wine at it, police said. He admitted what he had done to officers, police said. The episode was most likely written off as one man's bad night.

Two days later, he was back, standing outside the hotel in just his underwear, ranting and cursing into a bullhorn, police said. And just three days after that, he vandalized a sign outside a nearby United Way office before climbing into the bed of a stranger's truck and rifling its contents, police said.

All these events played out within walking distance of the apartment where even his most far-afield views had only recently been delivered politely.

In the months that followed, Azzarello promoted his disjointed preoccupations in a document he posted on Facebook. The pages attacked fascism and the general complacency of the public. They espoused general anti-government sentiment but did not seem directed at a discernible political party.

"Like frogs in water coming to a boil, the public didn't notice the rotten truth behind the illusion of freedom," the writings state. The man who had written fondly of his mother just a year earlier -- "gracious and warm, silly and catty, compassionate and supportive" -- and their time together seemed to have disappeared.

His greatest vexation appeared to be cryptocurrency, which he cast as a threat to humanity.

It was unclear when he arrived in New York, taking a room at the Soho 54 Hotel on Watts Street in lower Manhattan and making his way to the running sideshow outside the downtown criminal courthouse.

The area he chose, Collect Pond Park, has been an on-and-off stage for supporters and opponents of Trump for months. Azzarello was there by Thursday, holding a sign and speaking in ways that, perhaps bizarre elsewhere, fit in with the disparate voices of the park.

On Friday, the crowd in the park had thinned. At about 1:35 p.m., people began to scream. A blur followed: a man on fire, bright flames licking his clothing and hair; officers scrambling over barricades; a departing ambulance.

His oldest friends were left struggling to make sense of this act.

"He was kind and a gentle soul," said Carol Waldman, the mother of his childhood friend. "A real wonderful, terrific young guy. Who had his whole life ahead of him."

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Published 20 April 2024, 03:27 IST

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