'Total disbelief': Friends shocked by man setting himself on fire outside Trump trial, say he was kind but troubled

When Doug Johnson received a text that his friend of over a decade, Maxwell Azzarello, had died after setting himself on fire in New York City, he didn’t believe it.

“I was like, ‘No, you got the wrong person. I don’t know anybody that would do that,'” Johnson told NBC News.

Johnson did some research online out of curiosity, and that’s when he saw Azzarello’s face pop up in an article.

Maxwell Azzarello. (via Instagram)

Maxwell Azzarello. (via Instagram)

“Just immediately, chills up my spine, like, in total disbelief,” he said.

Azzarello set himself on fire outside the courthouse where former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial was taking place on Friday.

According to police, he walked into the center of the park where protesters were allowed across the street from the courthouse, opened a backpack and threw numerous pamphlets on the ground. He then pulled out a canister, poured a liquid accelerant on himself, lit himself on fire and then fell to the ground.

Azzarello, 37, later died of his injuries, leaving friends and strangers alike wondering what drove him to his actions.

Johnson, who was part of the same friend group as Azzarello in North Carolina, describes him as smart, funny, charismatic and the most intelligent human being he had ever met.

“I keep hearing on the news, you know, how he was a conspiracy theorist, an extremist — and obviously, you have to be extreme to do something like he did,” Johnson said. “But as far as the way the picture’s been painted of him so far, I feel like it’s a really inaccurate depiction of him.”

Selfless, but troubled

A glimpse at social media gives a small window into Azzarello’s thoughts. Multiple pictures of pamphlets entitled “Dips— Secrets of our Rotten World” and “The True History of the World,” were posted to his Facebook and Instagram, expressing anti-government views. In his pamphlets, he accused powerful people of running Ponzi schemes and warned of an imminent economic collapse and coup.

Max Azzarello outside of Manhattan criminal court in New York City (David Dee Delgado / Getty Images)

Max Azzarello outside of Manhattan criminal court in New York City (David Dee Delgado / Getty Images)

On Friday, a user on Substack going by the name M. Crosby — Crosby is Azzarello’s middle name — published a blog post where he wrote that he set himself on fire outside of the Trump trial in New York City. The writer said that this “extreme act of protest is to draw attention to … an apocalyptic fascist world coup.”

Mary Pat Cooney, who worked with Azzarello nine years ago at the Liberty Hill Foundation, an L.A.-based social justice nonprofit, described him as a selfless person who was “always happy to help people” if they had a problem.

“He was highly intelligent, thoroughly dedicated, funny and kind — that’s the person that I remember,” Cooney said.

Azzarello attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in public policy and anthropology, according to a university spokesperson. He also earned his master’s degree in city and regional planning, with a major in urban planning and policy development from Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 2012.

I swear, as far as history and politics and, you know, social studies, social matters, stuff like that, there wasn’t a topic that he wasn’t knowledgeable in,” Johnson, Azzarello’s friend from North Carolina, said. “And it was like the equivalent of me typing something into Google and then Max is spitting out the information to me, and he was accurate with it.”

But beyond Azzarello’s brilliance, he seemed to be troubled, according to his friends. Both Johnson and Cooney said Azzarello appeared to change after the death of his mother in April 2022.

Cooney, who kept in touch with Azzarello through Facebook, said the character of his posts became less good-natured after his mother’s death.

“In his previous posts, and all our communication — (he was) concerned, righteous, knowledgeable, a good-spirited guy,” Cooney said. “The guy that came a little later was a bit more of a ranter, had a different level of anger, and was expressing it in a — I don’t know what the right word is, but it was kind of like he was yelling at us to pay attention to him, rather than pleading his case and sharing it for the world.”

In August of last year, Azzarello posted a picture of grippy socks to his Facebook with the caption, “Three days in the psych ward and all I got were my new favorite socks.”

“I was handcuffed, shoved, and put into a psych ward,” Azzarello wrote toward the end of the caption. “I was given no information about why I was there until after my discharge. Though I committed no crime and was released upon my first evaluation, all background checks (like the ones for jobs) will show an incident with police officers that cannot be expunged (until we abolish the government, of course).”

It’s not clear what events took place before Azzarello said he was committed to the psych ward.

A string of arrests

Azzarello’s alleged stint in a psych ward seemed to precede a string of arrests in St. Augustine, Florida, where he lived before his death.

On Aug. 19, 2023, Azzarello was charged with criminal mischief when he allegedly threw a glass of wine at an autograph by former President Bill Clinton that was on a wall at the lobby of the Casa Monica Resort & Spa, according to a warrant affidavit from the St. Augustine Police Department.

Two days later, Azzarello allegedly returned to the resort and stood outside, where he stripped down to his underwear, yelled and cursed at customers, and was blasting music from a speaker, per an arrest report.

An officer who attempted to make contact with Azzarello said “he just began yelling and was not making any sense.” He was arrested for disturbing the peace. Azzarello was put on probation for this incident, which ended earlier this month.

Three days after that, Azzarello was arrested again for criminal mischief after he was seen on surveillance video allegedly vandalizing property belonging to a nonprofit in St. Johns County, including writing with permanent marker on one of their signs, court documents state. He was also seen climbing into the bed of someone’s pickup truck and going through their belongings, as well as removing a sign placed at a home by pest control warning them to keep pets and children off the lawn.

“Azzarello was misinterpreting the sign and was telling me that the pest control company was there to exterminate children and dogs,” an officer with the St. Augustine Police Department wrote in the arrest report.

Azzarello was also put on probation in connection with these incidents, which ended earlier this month.

His final moments

Two years after the death of his mother, Azzarello made his way to New York City where he self-immolated. It’s not clear why or when Azzarello came to the city, but NYPD Chief of Detectives Joseph Kenny said he arrived early last week and that family members were unaware that he was there.

When asked if he felt there was a reason Azzarello would self-immolate outside of the Trump trial, Johnson said Azzarello wasn’t specifically concerned about Trump, but would speak generally about the corruption of all politicians.

While struggling to understand why his friend would do this, Johnson hopes people don’t remember Azzarello just for his final moments.

“He deserves at least to be remembered for the good person that he was, the selfless person that he was, the charismatic, loving, giving person,” Johnson said. “All he wanted was better for people and it didn’t matter if he knew you or not. He wanted better for everyone.”

 If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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