Gottardi gets 20 years

Arsonist says he's innocent victim of a conspiracy

Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2005

Before getting a 20-year prison sentence for setting the September 2004 Auke Bay fire and hearing the judge call him "a clear and substantial risk to the public," Rickey Gottardi began to cry.

"I didn't do it," the 46-year-old man said late Friday morning when he was done reading a prepared statement claiming he was the victim of a conspiracy. He also questioned why he would start the fire in a harbor where he lived on his boat.

He pounded his fists on the desk in front of him, prompting a courtroom officer to put him back in handcuffs. "They convicted me of something I didn't do."

He asked Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins to acquit him and dismiss his case.

"I have no reason to believe that any conspiracy by anyone is the reason you are here today," Collins told him. Gottardi was there, she told him, because 12 jurors found him guilty on charges of first-degree arson, first-degree criminal mischief and misdemeanor oil pollution in a trial she presided over in July.

It was the second trial on the charges for Gottardi. In the first, presided over by Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks in April, jurors failed to reach a verdict.

The fire started in the Petro Marine fuel lines in the early hours of Sept. 21, 2004, did extensive property damage, but three factors combined to keep it from killing people, Collins said.

She credited the brave actions of the firefighters; the wind blowing toward shore, away from the boats; and that it was diesel fuel, not more volatile gasoline, that was ignited.

As to why he would have done it, Collins said she found prosecution witness James Christopher Maher's testimony believable. Maher testified that Gottardi woke him up while the fire was raging and said, "Look, Bro, look what I've done."

"In my view, Mr. Gottardi, you are a man filled with anger," Collins said.

The sentence, originally set for Thursday afternoon, was delayed by Gottardi's statement, which continued Friday morning. He said he was "railroaded" by a "kangaroo court" that worked in cahoots with the prosecution and his attorney.

After a break at noon and Collins' afternoon hearings, she sentenced Gottardi to the maximum 20 years on the arson charge.

Sentences for the other crimes would be served at the same time, she said. In addition to the maximum one year for oil pollution, the 15 years she imposed for criminal mischief was listed as the usual sentence for someone with at least two felonies.

She said Gottardi had seven felonies among 32 criminal convictions spanning three decades. "Even what are considered minor offenses have a distinctly antisocial quality," she said.

She cited an old reckless driving conviction where the record shows he tried to run over a dog. Having missed the dog, he turned around and tried to run over it again, she said.

Collins said the arson case was unusual because she considered imposing more than the 20-year total that Assistant District Attorney Doug Gardner had sought, but did not.

Under Alaska law, Gottardi will be eligible for parole after serving 20 months beyond the usual 15-year sentence on the arson charge, Collins explained. She said she would leave parole up to the judgment of the parole board.

He could reduce his sentence by as much as one-third with credit for "good time" in prison, she added. "It seems likely good time is a foreign concept in your life, considering the crimes you've been convicted of in jail."

Collins said he turned a sentence for two years into 15 years with crimes he committed behind bars. In addition to a 1982 escape from the Lemon Creek Correctional Center, she cited an escape from another jail in which he committed an assault on a corrections officer, using a frying pan.

Although she said it was doubtful that he would pay for the damage he caused, Collins ordered restitution: $132,462.41 to Petro Marine; $19,000 to DeHarts Marina and the insurance companies, and $27,999 to the city of Juneau, to pay back the cost of cleaning up the mess left by the crime.

On top of the sentence in the arson case, Collins reinstated 80 days in jail, time suspended from a previous misdemeanor criminal mischief conviction.

Much of Gottardi's statement centered on criticism of his court-appointed attorney, Steven Wells, who appeared in court Thursday and Friday by telephone from his office in Palmer before leaving for a trial in Kotzebue.

Gottardi said Wells failed to show that prosecution witnesses weren't telling the truth. "They keep changing their stories," he said, reading transcripts of statements people made before trial.

He referred to Wells as his "supposed defense attorney" and alleged he told him he would sabotage the second trial, at which he called no witnesses. Gottardi said he filed a grievance with the Alaska State Bar Association.

He read Wells' response to him about his complaints and his copy of Wells' response to his grievance, laughing at several points.

In the responses, Wells denied that he sabotaged the second trial. He said he called none of the jail witnesses because jurors from the first trial who couldn't agree on a verdict agreed that they didn't believe the people brought in from the Lemon Creek Correctional Center to testify for the defense. He also had reason to believe two committed perjury, he wrote.

Gardner told Collins Thursday that he had an affidavit from one of Gottardi's witnesses from jail, Ryan Lynch, stating he perjured himself during the first trial because of threats from Gottardi.

Gottardi also laughed when he read the reasons Wells offered for recommending he not take the witness stand.

"'The worst thing you could do is take the stand and testify,'" Gottardi read from the letter. He said Wells believed that because he was "fixated" on a Juneau police investigator conspiring against him, he would allow the prosecution to bring in his extensive criminal record.

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



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