'Researcher', 37, set himself on fire outside Donald Trump's hush money trial in shocking 'political protest'

20 April 2024, 01:33 | Updated: 20 April 2024, 02:31

Azzarello was pictured outside the courthouse a day earlier with a conspiracy sign
Azzarello was pictured outside the courthouse a day earlier with a conspiracy sign. Picture: Getty/Alamy/CNN

By Emma Soteriou

A 37-year-old 'researcher' has been identified as the man who set himself on fire outside Donald Trump's hush money trial in New York.

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Maxwell Azzarello, from St Augustine in Florida, could be seen kneeling with his hands behind his head as horrified onlookers screamed out on Friday.

He was standing in the designated protest area for Donald Trump supporters outside the courthouse when the incident occurred, the NYPD said.

He doused himself with a liquid at around 1.30pm local time before setting himself alight.

Azzarello was believed to have been burning for around three minutes as people rushed over to douse him with a fire extinguisher and bat away the flames.

Emergency responders took him away on a stretcher. He is in critical condition, the NYPD said.

It happened on the fourth day of Mr Trump's trial in Manhattan, with a full jury of 12 people and six alternatives having been selected just minutes earlier.

Read more: From a man who meditates every morning to a corporate lawyer: The 12 jurors who will decide Donald Trump's fate

Read more: Trump warned against intimidating jurors as he mutters under his breath in court

Pamphlets left at the park across from Manhattan Criminal Court
Pamphlets left at the park across from Manhattan Criminal Court. Picture: Getty

The NYPD said it had launched an investigation after being called to the fire at around 1.37pm.

Azzarello threw "propaganda-based" pamphlets in the air before he set himself ablaze, police said.

It is unclear if he was protesting in support of or against Mr Trump.

The 37-year-old's substack states that he is an "investigative researcher". 

Officials said he arrived in New York from Florida earlier in the week - but members of his family were unaware he had gone.

"Right now, we are labelling him as sort of a conspiracy theorist, and we are going from there," Tarik Sheppard, a deputy commissioner with the police department, said.

Just before the incident, Azzarello published a post on substack that read: "I have set myself on fire outside the Trump Trial."

Maxwell Azzarello
Maxwell Azzarello. Picture: Instagram

One eye witness told DailyMail.com: "I’ve never seen something like that in my life.

"I was crossing the park and saw a fire and then it just ignited. People were screaming and trying to use a fire extinguisher to put the fire out."

Another witness, who had been visiting from South Carolina, said: "It was completely out of the blue.

"He started throwing brochures around and then poured gasoline on himself, two or three gallons.

"He took out a match or lighter and set himself completely on fire. He kneeled down as if he was praising somebody. He didn’t say anything."

Police at the scene.
Police at the scene. Picture: Getty

The Trump campaign released a statement offering its "condolences to the traumatized witnesses" after the incident.

“Not knowing the motivations behind this sickening situation, it’s difficult to make any definitive remarks, other than to say we are thankful that to the best of our present knowledge, nobody other than the individual in question was hurt," national press secretary Karoline Leavitt said.

She also thanked "the great first responders of the City of New York for their actions".

Mr Trump's trial will place him in a Manhattan courtroom for weeks, forcing him to juggle his dual role as criminal defendant and political candidate against President Joe Biden.

The case brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg accuses Trump of falsifying business records to suppress stories about his sex life emerging in the final days of the 2016 election.

Donald Trump is currently on trial in New York
Donald Trump is currently on trial in New York. Picture: Alamy

It centres on a 130,000-dollar (£105,000) payment that Trump's lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen made shortly before the 2016 election to porn actress Stormy Daniels to prevent her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump from becoming public in the race's final days.

Prosecutors say Trump obscured the true nature of the payments in internal records when his company reimbursed Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2018 and is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution.

Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels, and his lawyers argue that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses.