Business owner Brick Lobaugh says he helps boaters in emergency situations every day from his marine navigation electronics storefront at the Don D. Statter Harbor Facilities overlooking Auke Bay.
So it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary when a boat operator, who was later identified as James Lee Jespersen, asked Lobaugh for help when his fishing vessel, the “Silver Surf,” wouldn’t start.
What was out of the ordinary, however, was when Jespersen apparently became upset that Lobaugh couldn’t fix his starter and alternator and allegedly fire-bombed Lobaugh’s storefront.
Police said they arrested Jespersen Wednesday evening on suspicion of setting Brick’s Marine Electronics on fire. He was charged with one count of first-degree arson, a class ‘A’ felony that can carry up to 20 years in prison, for intentionally damaging Lobaugh’s property by starting a fire or causing an explosion and recklessly placing another person in danger of serious physical injury.
During Jespersen’s arraignment in Juneau District Court on Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp said Jespersen has a serious criminal history — he was convicted of attempted murder in California in 1991 and received an eight-year prison sentence for that offense, Kemp said.
“They had one small variation of the spelling,” Kemp said, after telling the judge that her office called California officials to verify that conviction. “They spelled Jespersen with an ‘o’ rather than with an ‘e’ but the date of births matched up.”
Before that, Jespersen was convicted of grand theft in 1979, and most recently, he was convicted for being a felon in possession in 2002, and received a four-year sentence for that conviction, Kemp said. She did not say what he was in possession of.
If convicted of the arson charge, Jespersen would serve a presumptive 15 to 20 years in prison because he has three prior felonies, Kemp said.
Kemp requested Jespersen be kept in custody in lieu of $500,000 cash bail, which Judge Keith Levy granted.
“It’s a very serious charge,” Levy said. “Obvious concerns about safety to the victims and people involved in this incident, and then to the community generally.”
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and shackled next to two other inmates in custody, Jespersen, 53, fidgeted with his glasses and stared at the ground after routine questioning from Levy.
Jespersen told the judge his mailing address is in Sitka, but he lives on his boat, which is still currently in Auke Bay, he said. Kemp said his girlfriend lives on the boat with him.
Jespersen, who was born in San Francisco, said he receives disability benefits from the government and could not afford an attorney. Levy appointed the Public Defender Agency to represent him.
According to a police news release and an affidavit filed by Kemp, an Auke Bay Apartments resident called police just before midnight on Wednesday to report hearing the sound of glass breaking at the store and witnessing a man in gray hoodie hitting the window and lighting something in his hands on fire.
“The object in his hands was about the size of a football,” the caller told police, according to the affidavit. “The male then tossed the object through the window and walked towards the gangway. I saw a glow coming from inside the building but wasn’t sure it was on fire.”
Police said they responded and discovered a fire about 3 to 4 feet high and about 2 feet wide burning in the store. An officer was able to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher as the fire department arrived on scene.
Brick Lobaugh’s brother, Dale Lobaugh, who just moved to Juneau from Fairbanks, was sleeping in a bunk attached to the back of the shop at the time of the fire, according to the affidavit. He was able to escape without injury when he smelled the smoke.
A witness to the incident told responding police that the suspect fled the scene toward the harbor. Police said they found Jespersen drunk on his boat.
Jespersen agreed to accompany officers to the harbor master’s office, which is located next to Brick’s Marine Electronics, but he asked to change into warmer clothing first. As he took off his left flip-flop, an officer noticed a piece of partially burnt toilet paper on his foot, the affidavit states.
Police detained him as they obtained a search warrant for the Silver Surf. Inside the boat, officers found multiple pieces of burnt tissue paper that were found inside Brick’s, according to the affidavit. Police also found a green Bic lighter, clothing matching the suspect’s description, a roll of paper towels and a roll of toilet paper, the affidavit states.
The affidavit states video surveillance at the harbor master’s office also captured the suspect walking toward the store with a plastic grocery bag and, after a flash of orange light is seen, leaving the area without the bag.
On Thursday, Lobaugh and another employee were cleaning and airing out the store, which reeked of smoke, and meeting with an insurance adjustor. Damaged computers and electronics were strewn across the store’s porch.
“I’m a little burned out,” Lobaugh joked during an interview with the Empire.
The fire marshal estimated the damage to the store was about $8,000, according to the affidavit, but Lobaugh said it was probably “way more than that,” at least $50,000, he guessed.
The fire burned parts of the ceiling and floor, as well as electronic inventory and equipment, but it was contained because the officer’s quick actions with the fire extinguisher, Lobaugh said.
“Luckily it didn’t spread further,” Lobaugh said.
Lobaugh, who has owned the store since 1999, said the incident actually began about four days earlier when Jespersen asked Lobaugh to charge his boat’s battery and fix his starter and alternator, even though Jespersen didn’t have any money to pay for services.
“We ended up charging his battery for him,” Lobaugh said. “So he brought it up here for a few days, and my brother even monitored the battery charger he had. And it got up and it charged, and he brought his starter up, because I said, ‘Sure, we’ll try it.’ I mean, I want to be a Good Samaritan when I can. I know he wasn’t going to be able to pay, but the lady on his boat was saying ‘please.’ So you know, that sounded fair.”
But then, Lobaugh said, the woman told Lobaugh on Tuesday that Jespersen told her he was going to throw the starter through the storefront’s window, and she talked him out of it.
“I said, “OK, yeah right, sure.’ And so this starter and the battery were gone yesterday — he took it back, and then this is what happened,” Lobaugh said, gesturing to the broken window that is now boarded up.
Lobaugh said while he had never met Jespersen before, he recognized the Silver Surf. He worked on it back in the 1990s for its previous owner.
Lobaugh said he never would have guessed Jespersen would be accused of setting a fire inside his store — his first store vandalism in 13 years of business.
“I can’t read people that way,” he said, adding, “I work for the boat.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.