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Who is Max Azzarello? The man who set himself on fire outside the Trump trial.

Who is Max Azzarello?  The man who set himself on fire outside the Trump trial.

The journey that ended with a man being set on fire Friday outside the Manhattan courthouse where Donald J. Trump was on trial appeared to have begun in Florida, with a series of increasingly bizarre explosions .

Standing in the cold afternoon, the man, Max Azzarello, 37, of St. Augustine, Fla., tossed pamphlets into the air before dousing himself with an accelerant and igniting his body. Police rushed to put out the flames and he was taken to a hospital burn unit with serious injuries. He died Friday evening.

The fire, located just blocks from the courthouse, seemed destined to attract widespread attention, horrifying passersby and temporarily overshadowing the momentous trial of a former president.

But a closer look at man’s path to this moment of self-destruction reveals a recent spiral of volatility, marked by a worldview that had become increasingly confused and disjointed—and one that seemed detached from any political party. His social media posts and arrest records suggest the immolation instead came from a place of conspiracy theories and paranoia.

Until last summer, Mr. 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 urban and regional planning in 2012, he was known for leaving supportive Post-it notes for classmates in the halls and for her performances at Frank Sinatra Karaoke and Disney Tunes, said a former classmate, Katie Brennan.

“He was very curious about social justice and how things ‘could’ happen,” Ms. Brennan said. “He was creative and adventurous.”

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

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

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

But there were also reasons to worry.

Last year, he had apparently moved to St. Augustine, where he lived in a modest apartment near the Matanzas River in that historic city. He was a pleasant, if sometimes strange, neighbor.

“An extremely nice person,” said Larry Altman, the property manager of his building, who added: “He had political views that I wouldn’t consider mainstream. He called our government and the world government a Ponzi scheme »

But there was no indication he harbored a desire to harm himself, Mr. Altman said.

“If you met Max, he would shake your hand and you would have a nice conversation,” he said. “He would treat you with respect.”

However, he is visibly deeply affected by the loss of his mother. Elizabeth Azzarello died on April 6, 2022 near Sea Cliff, New York, on Long Island, where she had battled lung disease, Mr. Azzarello wrote on Instagram in April 2022.

“I am immensely proud to say that she overcame the terrible challenges of this illness with strength, dignity and spirit until the end,” he wrote.

After this loss, his old friends noticed a change. “It was around this time that he became more outspoken,” Mr. Waldman said. “They were close and had a good relationship. He was heartbroken.

By the following year, the clarity Mr. Azzarello had demonstrated in writing about his grief had disappeared and a troubled picture emerged.

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

About five months later, in early August 2023, he posted on Facebook about his visit to a mental health treatment facility: “Three days in the psych ward, and all I got was my news favorite socks. »

A few days later, in the picturesque town of St. Augustine, he went to dinner at the Casa Monica Hotel on Cordova Street. Then Mr. Azzarello entered 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, the court said. police. He admitted what he had done to officers, police said. The episode was probably considered a man’s bad night.

Two days later, he was back, standing outside the hotel in his underwear, ranting and swearing into a bullhorn, police said. And three days later, he vandalized a sign outside a nearby United Way office before climbing into a stranger’s truck and rummaging through its contents, police said.

All of these events took place just steps from the apartment, where even its most distant views had only recently been politely delivered.

In the months that followed, Mr. Azzarello laid out his rambling concerns in a document he posted on Facebook. The pages attacked fascism and general public complacency. They espoused a general anti-government sentiment but did not appear directed against any discernible political party.

“Like frogs in boiling water, the public has failed to 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 – “kind and warm, silly and mean, compassionate and supportive” – and their time together seemed to have vanished.

His biggest annoyance seemed to be cryptocurrency, which he presented as a threat to humanity.

It was unclear when exactly he arrived in New York, checking into a room at the Soho 54 Hotel on Watts Street in Lower Manhattan and heading to the racing spectacle in front of the downtown criminal courthouse.

Mr. Azzarello began to spiral after his mother died in 2022, friends said.Credit…Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

The area he chose, Collect Pond Park, has for months been a busy scene for supporters and opponents of Mr. Trump. Mr. Azzarello was there Thursday, holding a sign and speaking in a way that, perhaps oddly elsewhere, fit with the disparate voices in the park.

By Friday, the crowds in the park had thinned. Around 1:35 p.m., people started screaming. A blur followed: a man on fire, bright flames licking his clothes and hair; officers breaking through barricades; an ambulance leaving.

His older friends had difficulty understanding this act.

“He was kind and gentle,” said Carol Waldman, the mother of his childhood friend. “A truly wonderful and wonderful young man. Who had his whole life ahead of him.


If you are having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

Nathan Schweber, Stefanos Chen, Nicole Manna, Nicolas Fandos, Chelsia Rose Marcius And Claire Fahy reports contributed. Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.

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Mattie B. Jiménez

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