Jurors saw photographs of scorched turf field equipment and heard testimony from an eyewitness and fire officials during an arson trial that began Wednesday.
A jury of seven men and six women are hearing the case against 19-year-old Ashley R. Johnston, one of the defendants accused of setting a fire at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park this past summer.
Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams said in opening statements Johnston and her “cohorts” set a fire that caused nearly $25,000 worth of damage to equipment being used to replace the city-owned turf football field.
Video surveillance camera footage did not capture them or anyone setting the fire, Williams said, but the footage shows them jumping over a chain-link fence onto the field, walking around, then leaving shortly before the fire department responded around 4 a.m. on June 19.
“She looks right up at (the camera), you can see her face,” Williams told the jury.
Williams said Johnston eventually confessed to police — a characterization the defense took issue with — that she was involved because she wanted to impress her friends and because she wanted to continue drinking with them.
“Nearly $25,000 for this act, and that was all so the defendant could have a drink with these guys,” Williams said. “She would cooperate with them so she could keep drinking.”
Johnston’s attorney, Public Defender Timothy Ayer, says his client never confessed to setting the fire, despite an hour long police interrogation. Ayer said testimony will show police lied outright to Johnson when they told her they had her on video camera lighting the fire.
“They don’t have it on video. That was an outright lie,” Ayer said. “... They don’t have any of those videos. They don’t exist. They were blatant lies in order to get Ms. Johnston to confess to something that she did not do.”
When police told her that, Ayer said his client did not confess, but replied, “She says, ‘OK, if you have it on video, I guess I can’t deny it. I don’t remember it, it doesn’t sound like me, but you have it on video, so I guess it must have happened.”
Ayer continued on to say the state has no “hard evidence” pointing to Johnson as the person who started the fire.
The first witness the state called to the stand, a Juneau Empire employee who spotted the black plume of smoke as he was delivering newspapers on his morning route and called 911, testified he saw a girl riding her bicycle away from the scene.
But when asked if the girl he saw was Johnston, Donny Haynes Jr. looked at her from the witness stand and said, “I would have to say no.” The girl he saw had blonde frizzy hair, he confirmed under cross-examination.
Capital City Fire/Rescue Deputy Fire Marshal Sven Pearson and Fire Marshal Dan Jager testified next and showed the jury pictures of a John Deere tractor, a spreader trailer and special adhesive glue that were all damaged. The materials belonged to Shaw Sportexe, the company from Georgia hired to replace the turf field. The two officers also testified there was damage to the announcer’s box, or press box, above the bleachers.
Jager said the ignition source of the fire was never determined. He concluded the fire was most likely intentionally set after ruling out mechanical, electrical and weather-related causes.
“Because the overall damage of the fire scene itself, and the fact that we did an interview with the contractor and asked if there was any mechanical problems, electrical problems that they knew of for the tractor, the fact that they stated that there were none that they knew, that the last time they believed the equipment was used was the day before, and again, the time of day and the location,” Jager said under direct examination from Williams.
Under cross-examination, Jager said he did not see the start of the fire or actual flames by the time he arrived on scene and that he received all his information from interviews after the fact. He said during re-direct from Williams that is the way fire investigations always are.
Nothing about the fire in and of itself affirmatively pointed to arson, but the circumstances surrounding the fire did, Jager said under cross-examination.
Brent Fischer, the director of Parks and Recreation for the City and Borough of Juneau, also testified and said there was also one of the four to six video cameras affixed to the concession stand was broken. The camera was found in the middle of the field, and the footage shows that one of the other people involved had probably broken it, he said.
Fischer said when he came to the fire scene, he noticed football practice equipment — blocking pads — were on the field when it shouldn’t have been, and he suggested police dust it for finger prints. None were found, testimony showed.
The trial is slated to continue this week with testimony from police officers and employees from Shaw Sportexe. The defense will then call their witnesses. Before the jury breaks to deliberate, one of the 13 jurors will be excused, leaving 12 to decide the case.
Johnston is charged with one count of arson and one count of criminal mischief. Both of those are felonies that can carry up to five years in prison, which means if convicted, Johnston could be facing up to 10 years.
She is also charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. She previously was charged with another misdemeanor for consuming alcohol as a minor, but prosecutors dropped that charge last week.
Her codefendant, Ryan M. Martin, 24, is slated to stand trial April 1 before the same judge, Philip Pallenberg, on the same arson charge. They were originally supposed to be tried together, but their cases were severed.
The state also tried to indict a third person for the arson, but the grand jury failed to return a true bill. Dillon West, 24, is facing three misdemeanors in connection to the fire, and he is slated to go to trial on April 1 in Juneau District Court.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.