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Gottardi found guilty of arson

Man faces up to 20 years each for two convictions in 2004 DeHarts Marina blaze

Posted: Thursday, July 14, 2005

It took a jury less than two hours Wednesday to find Rickey Gottardi guilty of setting Auke Bay ablaze last September.

Although defense attorney Steven Wells said his client's chief accusers were of a questionable character better suited for "a Coen brothers" movie than as trial witnesses, Assistant District Attorney Doug Gardner said their stories were consistent with the evidence that pointed to Gottardi.

It was the second time Gottardi, 46, was tried on felony charges of first-degree arson and first-degree criminal mischief, along with a misdemeanor count of oil pollution for the Sept. 21 fire started in fuel lines at DeHarts Marina. Damage from the fire exceeded $150,000 and the blaze put firefighters' lives at risk, according to trial testimony.

An April trial ended with a hung jury. Jurors selected Tuesday found Gottardi guilty on all three counts.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins, who presided over the trial, scheduled sentencing for Sept. 7.

During his closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, Gardner said witness James Christopher Maher, who lived with Gottardi on the defendant's boat in Auke Bay, "was probably hammered that night." But he reminded jurors that Maher testified that Gottardi left the boat with the sort of torch that would be found near the scene by a Coast Guard detail.

Another Auke Bay resident, Dan Rasmussen, corroborated Maher's story by saying Gottardi had walked past his boat in the early hours of Sept. 21, Gardner added.

"These two guys should have been in a Coen brothers movie and not in a courtroom," Wells said, alluding to the creative team behind such off-beat crime movies as "Fargo" and "Raising Arizona." He pointed to Maher's drinking and questioned Rasmussen's credibility, noting he was serving probation for a criminal conviction.

After Gardner rested the state's case Wednesday morning, Wells rested his without calling any witnesses.

"We didn't present any evidence on who else might have done this," Wells explained during his closing. "I don't like to do it."

But he did question if the witnesses were telling the truth. "Is it that Mr. Maher saw Mr. Gottardi do it, or did he make it up the next day?" Wells said.

"He's too drunk to remember walking from here to here," Wells said while pointing to a diagram of the dock. "But he can remember everything Mr. Gottardi says?"

He asked jurors to "follow your noses" and reminded them of points that came up during jury selection, how he referred to "gaps in evidence" and how one prospective juror said there was no way to get the smell of diesel fuel out of clothing.

If Gottardi's clothing had smelled of diesel when he was arrested, they would still smell of diesel, he said. But no diesel-smelling clothing came into evidence.

"Ladies and gentlemen, there's something that stinks here, but it ain't diesel," he told the jury. "It ain't diesel."

Gardner responded in his rebuttal that Wells "has a flair for the dramatic. He has to." He asked jurors to look at the evidence. He said Maher and Rasmussen had nothing to gain by lying.

Through their testimony, he argued, they showed that Gottardi said he was going to start the fire, was in a place to start it and talked about starting it, Gardner said.

At least four times during his closing, Gardner recalled testimony from Maher, saying the witness said Gottardi pointed out the window and said, "Look, bro, look what I've done."

After Collins dismissed the jury, Gottardi asked about appealing the conviction. Collins said he would have 30 days from the entry of the judgment, which won't occur until Gottardi is sentenced.

Both the arson and criminal mischief convictions carry potential prison sentences of up to 20 years.

Gottardi was returned in handcuffs to the Lemon Creek Correctional Center. He has been lodged there since September.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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