Saturday, February 06, 1999

15-year-old admits role in fire at Wilson Jr. High

Judge regrets maximum term is two years

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A 15-year-old boy admitted Friday to playing a role in a $1 million arson at Wilson Junior High School and was sentenced to two years in a juvenile detention facility.

        Showing no emotion, the Hamilton boy pleaded guilty in Butler County Juvenile Court to juvenile charges of aggra vated arson, theft, forgery and complicity to theft. The last three charges are unrelated to the fire and stem from the theft of a cell phone and a $425 check.

        Judge David Niehaus told the boy he deserved a much stiffer punishment than the two-year sentence, the maximum allowed by law.

        “The time you'll serve is minimal compared to what you've done,” the judge said. “This can't begin to address the pain you've caused to a whole community.”

        After the plea hearing, Judge Niehaus ruled that there is probable cause for the boy's accused 17-year-old accomplice to stand trial. The older boy, who also lives in Hamilton, is charged with aggravated arson, receiving stolen property, forgery, complicity to theft and a probation violation.

        The judge will determine at a March 4 hearing whether he should be tried as an adult.

        Since the Jan. 15 fire, Wilson Junior High's classes have been shifted to Hamilton High School. Wilson students go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and the high school students go to classes from 1-6 p.m. The repairs on Wilson won't be completed until mid-March.

        After the plea hearing, Tracey Miller, principal of Wilson, said those who set the fire can never make amends for what they've done.

        “The money lost can never be replaced, the psychological damage will take a long time to be repaired,” he said.

        In court, the 15-year-old boy said that he and his friend brought a can of gasoline to the school around 2:30 a.m. Jan. 15. He said his friend poured gasoline into a bottle, broke a school window and tossed the bottle in, and then poured gas from the can into the window.

        “I stood on the walk while he did it,” the boy said. “I didn't know he was going to do it.”

        Asked why the his friend set the fire, the boy replied, “He just said that he hated Wilson.”

        But Hamilton Police Detective John Nethers testified that the 17-year-old told him that he stood under a tree while the 15-year-old set the fire.

        Mr. Nethers said police pinpointed the two suspects after the employee of a Dairy Mart in Hamilton told them two wet and muddy boys had come to the store about 4:45 a.m. on the morning of the fire.

        He said police identified the boys on surveillance videotapes from the Dairy Mart and from a Meijer store in Hamilton, where the 17-year-old had bought his girlfriend a ring earlier in the night.

        Mr. Miller said everyone at Wilson has pulled together to try to overcome the tragedy.

        “Students and staff who had never talked to each other before are working side-by-side,” he said.


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