A ‘gentle soul’ whose mother’s death sent him into decline: How Max Azzarello came to set himself on fire outside Trump trial

Max Azzarello had gone into decline after the death of his mother, friends said

Mike Bedigan,Kelly Rissman
Sunday 21 April 2024 15:02 BST
Police gather after man sets himself on fire outside Trump courthouse

Max Azzarello, 37, who died after setting himself on fire outside the Manhattan courthouse where Donald Trump is on trial, had recently started posting anti-establishment conspiracy theories online, including a lengthy article on Substack which blasted politicians, and billionaires and even made reference to The Simpsons.

The manifesto-style document warned of an impending “apocalyptic fascist world coup.”

At 1.30pm ET on Friday 19 April, he entered a park outside the New York courthouse, where Donald Trump’s historic criminal trial is taking place, and set himself on fire. The horrific incident lasted several minutes before the flames were extinguished by police officers and court staff.

Police told NBC News that he was declared dead by the hospital after he was admitted with severe burn injuries. No time of death was given by the police.

His friends described Azzarello as a “gentle” and “very personable” man. Some struggled to see how his final act was committed by the person they once knew so well, while others noted how his mother’s death had seemed to leave an indelible mark, driving him to support conspiracy theories and go a “little haywire”.

Who is the victim?

In his lengthy post, Azzarello described himself as an “investigative researcher”.

Police said that his driver’s licence showed he was born in 1987 and was a native of St Augustine, Florida. A registered Democrat, he attended the University of North Carolina from 2005 to 2009, according to public records and his LinkedIn page. He then obtained his master’s degree in city and regional planning in 2012 from Rutgers.

Those close to Azzarello described his as kind, creative, and well-informed — albeit concerned — about the world.

Steven Waldman, Azzarello’s friend from high school, described him to the New York Times as one of the most intelligent people he knew.

While at Rutgers, Katie Brennan, a former classmate, recalled him dotting hallways with encouraging Post-it notes for his classmates and singing karaoke versions of Frank Sinatra and Disney songs, the Times reported.

“He was super curious about social justice and the way things ‘could’ be,” Ms Brennan said. “He was creative and adventurous.”

Maxwell Azzarello pictured protesting outside Donald Trump’s trial at Manhattan Criminal Court one day before self-immolating near the same location
Maxwell Azzarello pictured protesting outside Donald Trump’s trial at Manhattan Criminal Court one day before self-immolating near the same location (Getty Images)

By 2013, Azzarello worked as operations director for the campaign of Tom Suozzi, his LinkedIn profile reveals. The now-Congressman was at the time running for Nassau County Executive.

Since then, he worked in marketing, sales and technology roles, some of which were based in Philadelphia, his profile shows.

Years later, Azzarello moved to St Augustine, Florida, his social media indicates, working as a self-employed “research investigator,” consistent with his online post.

But at some point this month, between April 13 and April 19, seemingly unbenownst to his family, he arrived in New York City.

The April dates fall almost exactly two years after his mother died. That’s when everything changed for Azzarello, his friends said.

“That was around the time when he became more outspoken,” Mr Waldman told the Times. “They were close, and they had a good relationship. He was heartbroken.”

He posted a tribute to his mother on Instagram, writing, “I couldn’t be happier to have been able to be close to her these last few months. She suffered from COPD, but I am immensely proud to say that she navigated the awful challenges of this disease with strength, dignity and spirit through the very end.”

From thereafter, his social media profile makes a significant shift, from posting about friends and family to posting about the “criminal government” and cryptocurrency.

Some told The Daily Beast that he had “gone a little haywire” as of late, also pointing to concerning social media posts.

In June of 2023, he reportedly tagged Ms Brennan and others in what she called a “manifesto” that he had penned. Alarmed by his writing, she called him immediately and eventually alerted one of his family members.

By August, the Times wrote, he posted on Facebook about visiting a mental health facility: “Three days in the psych ward, and all I got were my new favorite socks.”

In the following days, he displayed a series of unstable episodes.

He had dinner at St Augustine’s Casa Monica Hotel, where he apparently found a years-old autograph left on the wall by former president Bill Clinton; Azzarello threw a glass of wine at it, according to police.

Although he admitted to police what had happened, and they apparently dismissed it as a one-off incident, days later, he returned the hotel — clothed in only underwear — and stood outside, yelling into a bullhorn, the outlet wrote.

A few days later, he vandalized the outside of a United Way office and then entered a stranger’s truck, the Times reported.

Despite his multiple arrests in Florida, Azzarello did not have a criminal history in New York, police said.

His former landlord, Larry Altman, told the Daily Beast that Azzrello was a “very personable guy” but over the last few years, he had “become more and more involved with the thought process that everything is a conspiracy against the common person.”

Mr Altman also told the Times that Azzarello had “political views that I would not consider mainstream. He called our government and the world government a Ponzi scheme.”

The police-involved episodes of recent years and inclination toward conspiracy theories set the scene for Friday’s act in New York City.

He had apparently been spotted outside the Manhattan criminal courthouse on Thursday and Friday.

Those who knew him previously didn’t see the act outside the courhouse as consistent with the Max Azzarello they once knew.

Carol Waldman, Azarrello’s friend Steven’s mother, called Azzarello a “kind and a gentle soul.” She told the Times that he was a “real wonderful, terrific young guy who had his whole life ahead of him.”

His beliefs

Azzarello had a long history of posting conspiracy theories and railing against the rich and powerful, according to NYPD officials, who had begun to comb through his social media profiles.

Azzarello reportedly threw pamphlets in the park before self-immolating on Friday
Azzarello reportedly threw pamphlets in the park before self-immolating on Friday (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

His lengthy Substack post called out a string of people, social media companies and institutions. He also labelled the Covid-19 pandemic as an “economic doomsday device”.

In the document, Azzarello said that the act of self-immolation was “an extreme act of protest”.

“To my friends and family, witnesses and first responders, I deeply apologize for inflicting this pain upon you.” he wrote.

Elsewhere in the lengthy post, Azzarello also referred to late paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, cryptocurrency, and episodes of The Simpsons.

At one point he compared himself to Lisa Simpson.

Azzarello posted on social media about what he was planning to do
Azzarello posted on social media about what he was planning to do (Social media)

NYPD Chief of Detectives Joseph Kenny told reporters at a press conference. “The pamphlets [thrown by Mr Azzarello seconds before the incident] seem to be propaganda-based almost like a conspiracy theory type of pamphlets.

“Some information in regards to Ponzi schemes, and the fact that some of our local educational institutes are a front for the mob. So a little bit of a conspiracy theory going on here.”

The incident

Police said that Azzarello had not breached any security protocols before the incident, as the park – Collect Pond Park – was open to the public at the time.

Seconds before setting himself on fire, he tossed a stack of colourful pamphlets into the air.

A fire extinguisher remains on the scene outside the park where Azzarello self-immolated on Friday
A fire extinguisher remains on the scene outside the park where Azzarello self-immolated on Friday (AFP via Getty Images)

A man who witnessed the shocking incident, which occurred just minutes after the final jurors were selected in the former president’s criminal case, and identified himself as Dave, was visibly shaken.

“Papers clattered on the ground and that caught our attention well my attention anyway and I kinda wondered ‘well what are those papers’,” Dave told The Independent.

He added that people around him were “horrified” and became screaming. The incident happened so quickly that nobody was able to stop it.

“It’s awful to see that.”

Azzarello was taken by the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) to a burn unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Cornell Medical Center.

He was in critical condition and was later declared deceased by the hospital staff, NYPD said.

According to the fire department, six first responders, including a minimum of three NYPD officers and one court officer, sustained minor injuries while addressing the incident.

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