A Life Overtaken by Conspiracy Theories Explodes in Flames as the Public Looks On

The journey that ended with a man setting himself on fire on Friday outside the Manhattan courthouse where Donald J. Trump was being tried seemed to have begun in Florida, with a series of increasingly bizarre outbursts.

Standing in the afternoon chill, the man, Max Azzarello, 37, of St. Augustine, Fla., threw pamphlets into the air before dousing himself with an accelerant and setting his body ablaze. The police hurried to extinguish the flames, but officials said his injuries were grave, and he was being treated at a hospital burn unit.

The fire just a block or two from the courthouse appeared calculated to draw widespread attention, horrifying bystanders and temporarily overshadowing the momentous trial of a former president.

But a closer look at the path the man had traveled to this moment of self-destruction revealed a recent spiral into volatility, one marked by a worldview that had become increasingly confusing and disjointed — and appeared to be unattached to any political party. His social media postings and arrest records suggest the immolation stemmed instead 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, N.J., where he received a master’s degree in city and regional planning in 2012, he was known for leaving supportive Post-it notes for classmates in the hallways and for his karaoke performances of Frank Sinatra and Disney tunes, said a former classmate, Katie Brennan.

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