A plea deal was reached, but ultimately rejected last week after the arson suspect claimed that he didn’t start the fire at the Family Dollar Store last May.
“I plead guilty, but I didn’t commit this crime,” 20-year-old James Alexander told Chief District Court Judge Doug Walker.
At a plea hearing on Thursday, Jan. 9, Alexander’s attorney, Becky Briggs, said her client wanted to plead guilty and accept responsibility for his actions. Under the plea agreement, Alexander would have been required to pay restitution, undergo a mental health evaluation and have his jail term capped at 45 days.
Accepting his responsibility wasn’t Alexander’s intention. Reading prepared written remarks in open court, Alexander maintained his innocence on three counts of arson in connection to a May 14th blaze at the Family Dollar Store in Cortez.
“The prosecution has failed to recognize the truth,” Alexander said, his face turning bright red.
Walker said it’s not usual for a defendant to enter a plea agreement when afraid of the consequences, but he added that he couldn’t accept the deal.
“I have to hear something different than, I didn’t do it,” Walker said, entering a guilty plea on the suspect’s behalf. “If you’re going to maintain your innocence, then we’ll move forward with a jury trial.”
Despite advisement from Briggs not to make any additional comments, Alexander continued.
“I’m still willing to plead guilty,” he said, his voice cracking.
District Attorney Will Furse said he couldn’t in good faith accept Alexander’s guilty plea if he failed to take responsibility for causing the blaze.
“We exhausted all investigative techniques that confirm our beliefs that the defendant is guilty,” Furse said.
A jury trial, expected to last up to seven days, was scheduled for May 5. An April 22 deadline was set for any future plea deal.
Free on a $25,000 bond, Alexander was charged in September on a lone count of first-degree arson and two counts of fourth-degree arson. If convicted, he faces up to six years in prison followed by three years of parole and a maximum $500,000 fine.
According to a CBI agent, an unknown accelerant was used at four separate points of origin in connection to the May 14th inferno. An employee of the store told police the fire was not accidental, according to court records.
Alexander reportedly worked as an assistant manager at the Family Dollar store for about a week before the blaze. Reports reveal at least two other fires occurred inside the store after Alexander’s hire.
Family Dollar is part of the Cortez Plaza shopping center on East Main Street, behind First National Bank. The interior of the building sustained heavy smoke damage, and some structural integrity was lost.
About 30 local and area firefighters responded to battle the blaze. No injuries were reported.