By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH— "It's kind of a catch-me-if-you-can situation," said Sgt. Bill Wright of the Belknap County Sheriff's Department, who is still pursuing a man who allegedly set fire to a home in 1997, fled the state in 1998, twice faked his death and has not been seen since 1999.
"Just because it's an old case and no one was injured," Wright said, "doesn't mean it didn't happen and doesn't mean it's over." He added that "the people of Belknap County expect us to do what we can to bring this man back."
This week, the U.S. Marshals Service named James Lyman Hill, 73, who was indicted on a charge of arson in April 1998, its "Fugitive of the Week" and requested the assistance of the public in bringing him to justice.
"We've tried to reinvigorate the case every couple of years," said Wright, who recalled receiving "hundreds of tips" when Hill was featured on America's Most Wanted in November 2009. These included one from a woman in Phoenix, Arizona, who said she dated Hill, and said he ultimately stole her car and disappeared, and another leading police to interview a school teacher in California whose alibi was as strong as his likeness to Hill.
The chase began when Hill was indicted after allegedly setting fire to the empty home of his former girlfriend on Meredith Center on Dec. 13, 1997. Wright said that before the warrant for his arrest was issued, Hill, together with an associate, flew to Florida. Wright said that Hill, who worked as a carpenter and handyman, frequented marinas in south Florida where he reportedly sought advice about reaching the Cayman Islands. Later he learned from one the few members of Hill's family willing to speak with authorities that he was "infatuated" with the Caribbean islands, particularly those without extradition treaties with the United States.
Not long after arriving in Florida, Hill was suspected of stealing a 39-foot sailing yacht, valued at $150,000, in the Florida Keys. The yacht was recovered run ashore near Key Largo. Although there was no sign of Hill, his identification and belongings were found on board. After a search and investigation by the United States Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies found no trace of Hill, he was presumed lost at sea and declared dead. Not long afterward, Wright said that Hill was spotted in southern Florida and when Hill's belongings but not his body were found in a stolen vehicle that went into a river after crashing on a bridge, the death certificate was rescinded and the search resumed.
Wright said that there have been no confirmed reports of Hill's whereabouts since 1999, but he is presumed to be still alive and living, probably under a new identity, among the islands of the Caribbean. At the same time, Hill, who was born in Vermont, is believed to still have extensive ties, including family, to New England.
Hill is described as 6 feet tall, weighing about 200 pounds with brown hair and hazel eyes. He is reportedly fond of gambling and prone to "violent tendencies," especially when drinking. Anyone with information about his whereabouts or who has seen someone matching his description would contact the United States Marshals Fugitive Task Force at 603-225-1632 or Sgt. Bill Wright at the Belknap County Sheriff's Department at 527-5454.