Okanogan woman questioned over '78 NY arson that killed 8

Woman claims she was pressured into signing confession

SPOKANE - An Okanogan woman has been questioned by authorities from New York who are investigating the 1978 arson that killed her husband and seven of her children in the family?s home near Albany, New York.

New York officials have visited Virginia Utigard, formerly Gratto (pictured at right in 1978), who now lives in Okanogan, to discuss the arson that wiped out her family and left her the sole survivor.

In 1978 fire ripped through the Gratto family home in Cohoes, a small town 10 miles north of Albany, New York. Seven children ranging in age from nine to four-month-old twins perished in the fire along with their father, John Gratto Sr.

The only survivor was 29-year-old Virginia Gratto, the children?s mother and John?s wife. Gratto, three-months pregnant with her eighth child, was treated at a hospital for her injuries and released several hours later.

The district attorney at the time, Sol Greenberg, said that a Grand Jury heard testimony for months but they never heard from Virginia Gratto. Investigators early on were bothered that Virginia never acted like a woman who had lost her entire family. Greenberg said that when she returned to the charred remains of her home at 108 Ontario Street in Cohoes that she "went back to the scene of the fire looking for her purse."

While investigators never heard from her a local newspaper did. An article in the Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun dated June 5th, 1978 reported that Virginia said that she needed to find ?a new place for myself and to start all over again.?

According to WTEN in Albany, New York , Virginia answered a newspaper ad from an apple farmer in Eastern Washington and moved to Okanogan to start a new family.

On July 14th, 1978 ? just two months after her family was killed in the house fire in Cohoes - Norman Utigard of Okanogan married Virginia in a ceremony in Coeur d?Alene.

Ten months later the Grand Jury investigating the Gratto family fire reported that the house was destroyed by arson. In their findings presented to the NY State Supreme Court and as reported by the Schenectady Gazette on May 25, 1979, the Grand Jury found that, ?the evidence clearly establishes the sole cause of the fire was arson, intentionally set by person or persons unknown.?

"They've been trying to blame me for it and there's no way I would have done such a thing," Virginia Gratto said in 1979.

No indictments were ever handed down nor was the case closed. Virginia Utigard lived with her husband at Cherokee Orchards in Omak until his retirement in 1987. She now lives in Okanogan following the death of Norman after an extended illness in 2006.

Now 30 years after the deaths of her husband and seven children and the Grand Jury finding that arson led to their deaths, authorities are speaking to Virginia about the fire.

Sources confirm that federal, state and local investigators from New York traveled to Okanogan to interview Virginia Utigard to talk about the fire. WTEN reports that authorities have focused on Utigard from the start of the criminal investigation because she had showed little emotion in the hours following the fatal fire that wiped out her family.

Virginia Utigard was contacted by phone for comment on this story Thursday afternoon and she confirmed that she was taken to the sheriff?s office Wednesday where she was surprised by the presence of investigators from New York ready to ask her questions about the fire.

Utigard said they asked her questions for about seven hours Wednesday. She declined to comment further on the things discussed during the interview. While she refused further comment about the fire she did say that she had ?nothing to hide because I didn?t do it.?

The conversation didn't end there however. Minutes later Virginia was back on the phone and said that during the interview on Wednesday she claims she was pressured into signing a confession while continuing to maintain her innocence.

Virginia said that the night of the fire in 1978 "was the worst night of my life, [I] loved [my] children dearly and would never hurt them no matter how miserable a person is," explaining that her 10-year relationship with her husband John Gratto Sr. had been abusive.

After two conversations where the reporter speaking with Virginia clearly identified themselves when asking for comment on this story Virginia called a third time and said that she had been advised not to make any comment about the case and then asked to essentially retract everything she had already said on the record.

The investigators from New York have since left the state. The case remains under investigation.

KXLY4's Annie Bishop, Melissa Luck and WTEN News10 Managing Editor John McLoughlin in Albany, New York contributed to this report.