Steven M. Gallacher, 17, and his lawyer tried to persuade a judge that a firefighter injured at the scene wasn’t directly harmed by the arson itself. Had the judge agreed, Gallacher might only have been convicted of a lesser count of arson and perhaps been sentenced to probation in lieu of prison.
Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. wouldn’t make that ruling, however. Minutes after rejecting the notion that the injury and fire were only indirectly related, Ryan handed down a guilty verdict and set a sentencing hearing for Nov. 29, about two weeks after Gallacher’s 18th birthday.
Gallacher faces 6-30 years in prison with no possibility of probation. He showed no expression as the verdict was read. He did not speak at any time during the bench trial but will have an opportunity to address Ryan at the Nov. 29 sentencing.
“I’m not surprised by the court’s ruling,” defense attorney Louis Bertrand said following the verdict. “I thought we had a reasonable argument to make that could have gone either way.”
Bertrand said prosecutors were unwilling to negotiate a plea, and “we had no choice but to proceed in this manner.”
La Salle County state’s attorney Brian Towne praised the verdict.
“This certainly has been a community issue since New Year’s Eve, and so many lives were affected by this crime,” he said. “It’s always gratifying when justice is served.”
There was no way Gallacher was leaving court Wednesday without some kind of criminal conviction. He had fully confessed to setting the fire — albeit with no apparent intention of damaging the building — and most of his confession was corroborated by physical evidence or other testimony.
Gallacher came clean in a videotaped confession given hours after the fire first was reported shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve.
He told police he and a 16-year-old companion (who was prosecuted in juvenile court and sentenced to probation) got bored with video games, went for a walk and thought it’d be fun to sneak into the Westclox building. They entered a second story window using a ladder and found a boat with an outboard motor attached to a gas can. They detached the gas can and decided to light a fire.
“Whose idea was it?” the Peru detective asked in the taped statement.
“Mine,” Gallacher answered.
Unfortunately, the burn pile they selected — a batch of cardboard, according to the younger suspect’s admission — quickly spread to the rest of the building, which burned for days.
What made the arson into a non-probationable offense, however, was La Salle firefighter Steve Smith (who has since left the fire company) sustained a serious leg injury when a fire hose attached to a hydrant popped loose and the metal coupling flew off and hit him.
“The next thing I knew, I’m laying on my back,” Smith testified earlier at trial. “It was (forceful) enough to completely sweep me off my feet.”
How did the hose fly off? Nobody could fully explain it. Peru fire chief Jeff King and La Salle Lt. Brian Zeller testified Wednesday they’d never seen anything like it in their combined 43 years.
That left Bertrand with a small opening in an otherwise ironclad case: If the injury and fire weren’t directly connected, then perhaps Gallacher might not be guilty of aggravated arson.
Bertrand cited a case in which a firefighter was hurt falling from a ladder when a comrade holding it at the base wandered away. Though the defendant in that case was convicted of aggravated arson, anyway, the court held out the possibility that an injury could be assigned to an “unforeseeable” incident and thus chalked up to bad luck rather than bad conduct.
In this case, Bertrand fully acknowledged Smith was on scene because Gallacher had ignited the fire. But with none of the firefighters able to explain the hose accident, Bertrand said, Smith’s injury was unforeseeable and therefore shouldn’t have elevated Gallacher’s charge to aggravated arson.
That, prosecutor Greg Sticka countered, was splitting hairs. Gallacher set the fire. Smith responded and was injured on scene. Gallacher thus caused Smith’s injury.
Ryan agreed. He acknowledged some wiggle room as spelled out in the ladder case but attributed Smith’s injury to an “equipment failure” that was hardly unforeseeable given the scope of the fire and resulting threat to life and limb.
The judge further noted that the Legislature didn’t weave much flexibility into the statute governing arson. Lawmakers, Ryan said, decreed that even a minor injury — “A smashed toe, a cut finger,” he said — could be grounds for aggravated arson.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.