Man gets four years for burning down ex-wife’s house

Posted Jan. 25, 2013, at 1:49 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — A 53-year-old man was sentenced Friday to four years in prison for setting a fire more than three years ago that destroyed his ex-wife’s house.

Charles Henry Johnson was sentenced to eight years with all but four years suspended and placed on probation for four years upon his release for aggravated criminal mischief, burglary, theft and trafficking in prison contraband.

He had originally been charged with arson but on Jan. 8 agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated criminal mischief. Johnson committed the burglary and theft on the day of the fire at neighboring properties.

Discarded cans of Budweiser beer found outside his wife’s home and at one of the burglarized properties led police to Johnson. The specific cause of the fire was never determined but was ruled to have been from human element.

The sentence imposed by Justice Jeffrey Hjelm was similar to what had been sought by District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau but more than recommended by defense attorney Jeremy Pratt.

The fire occurred in December 2009 at Johnson’s ex-wife’s home on Serenity Lane in Union. The couple had been divorced for several years and she had been granted the house in the divorce. The agreement called for him to get a share of the proceeds if the house sold, but it had not.

The insurance company ultimately paid $160,000 as a settlement for the fire. After the fire, Johnson confronted his ex-wife and asked for his share of the settlement.

Justice Hjelm said there were aggravating factors in this case that called for the sentence he reached. He said the fire posed an enormous risk to the firefighters who had to battle such a blaze.

“To approach the victim and ask for a share of the insurance settlement was an act of remarkable chutzpah,” Hjelm said.

Rushlau had sought a 12-year sentence with all but four years suspended. He said the impact on the victim was enormous. The fire forced her out of her home and she was required to move to another community.

The prosecutor also cited Johnson’s lengthy criminal history that involved thefts.

Defense attorney Jeremy Pratt asked for six years with all but 18 months suspended.

Johnson has already served 13 months at the Knox County Jail while awaiting trial.

Pratt noted that Johnson had a significant criminal record prior to 1991 but then had no criminal behavior through 2006 — a 15-year period in which his client was sober.

“He needs to shake the demon of alcohol,” adding that relapse is part of recovery.

Johnson apologized for his behavior.

“I’m ashamed and embarrassed. I’m a grown man, I knew better,” Johnson said.

He noted he had been sober and a productive citizen for 15 years and asked for another chance, while acknowledging he should get some jail time. Johnson was a master plumber and a certified welder.

“As soon as I pick up a drink, I can’t control myself,” he said.

The prison contraband charge was the result of crushed anti-depressant pills being found in his cell at the Knox County Jail while awaiting trial.

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