Woman who burned Midtown apartments gets 1-year sentence

casey.grove@adn.comJuly 18, 2013 

An Anchorage woman started the January blaze that destroyed a 24-unit Midtown apartment building when she lit a corset on fire while fighting with her boyfriend, a prosecutor revealed at the woman's sentencing Thursday.

The two-alarm fire at 3405 Eureka Street, a three-story building valued at $1.4 million, sent two people to the hospital and killed several pets.

Over the objections of about a half-dozen of the displaced residents, many of whom had lost all of their possessions, a judge sentenced Jenae Collins to serve one year in prison. The sentence, which includes paying full restitution, was the result of a deal with state prosecutors in which Collins, 41, pleaded guilty to attempted arson. She entered her plea in June.

There was nothing attempted about it, said several of the building's former residents, who were in court Thursday urging a harsher sentence. And, they said, Collins will never be able to pay them back or replace their mementos.

"It hurt me to the bottom of my heart," said former resident Gretchen Johnson. "Down to the socks, I lost everything."

When Johnson recalled losing a large framed portrait of her mother, who had died in the year before the fire, she began to cry.

According to a charging document filed against Collins, she lit a piece of clothing, dropped it in a trash can on the balcony attached to her boyfriend's apartment and put a cardboard box on top. The charging document did not say what type of clothing Collins lit, or why, but prosecutor Jonas Walker said in court Thursday it had been a corset. It was no surprise to the people in the courtroom that alcohol was involved.

Walker tried to explain to the small group of former residents that attempted arson was an appropriate charge for the plea deal. It would have been difficult for the state to convict Collins at trial with the flimsy evidence in the case, he said. The only witness in the room with Collins -- her boyfriend, John MacClarence -- had lied at first, and a jury might not consider him reliable, Walker said.

"Trials, while they are dramatic, often don't give victims the closure they want," Walker told the group before the hearing began.

Inside the courtroom, Collins started off the tense hearing by reading a letter she said she had written.

"Words can never express the profound remorse and shame I feel for the terrible loss that each victim of this terrible fire suffered," Collins said. "Please know that I live with what I consider to be the unbearable knowledge that my mistakes are what caused the devastating destruction in your lives."

Collins' statement did not seem to impress any of the victims.

Two men who said they were disabled and spoke by phone said they had been forced to move out of state to find adequate housing. That included Eliah Cantwareburh, who said he lost three cats in the fire.

"Those animals were doctor-prescribed. They were considered service animals," Cantwareburh said.

After living in the building for 17 years, Lynn Joseph said he nearly died twice as a result of the fire. The first was when he was almost killed escaping the burning structure. The second was when he started having heart problems a short time later, Joseph said.

Joseph, 70, said his burned apartment was burglarized the night after the fire as he slept on a cot at the Spenard Recreation Center, set up as a shelter. He was staying at a friend's home the next day when he started having trouble breathing, his heart began racing and, soon after, paramedics rushed him to a hospital.

"The paramedics came. They hauled me off like a big slab of bacon and took me to the hospital," Joseph said. "I fell asleep, then I saw a bright flash. It was the paddles. They were trying to get my heart going. My heart stopped twice."

Doctors eventually installed a pacemaker, Joseph said.

"This fire has been, for me, a very personal deal," he said.

Collins' lawyer, Julia Moudy, said some of the victim statements to Collins were threatening and "very concerning." Her client had offered a sincere apology and hoped to pay as much of the restitution as possible, Moudy said. She agreed with Walker, the prosecutor, that the case would have been difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I think the reality is, and I think everybody knows, she won't be able to pay the whole amount back," Moudy said. "But she'll spend the rest of her life trying to do that."

In the end, Judge Philip Volland accepted the sentence -- five years with four suspended, five years' probation, and full restitution -- included in the plea deal he approved in June. The full amount of restitution would be decided at a later date, the judge said.

"She'll probably be chipping away at it at $100 a month. I don't know if that's going to have any real effect on your lives," Volland told the victims. "It probably won't."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


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