Man pleads guilty to church arson

District attorney recommends 5 to 8 years for fire that destroyed historic building

Posted: Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Juneau man accused of setting a fire that destroyed a downtown church and left one family homeless pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree arson.

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Outside the courtroom, Robert Huber, 24, declined to comment about the incident, but his court-appointed attorney, Marcy McDannel, said Huber regrets it deeply.

"He's a religious person and feels horrible about what happened to the church," she said.

Huber was originally charged with one count of first-degree arson, and one count of criminal mischief. As part of a plea agreement, the count of criminal mischief will be dropped.

At 4:30 a.m. on March 12, Huber set fire to a boat parked in a driveway between a house and the historic Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Gold Street, according to investigators. The fire spread from the boat to the house and the church, destroying them all. According to court records, the fire destroyed more than $2.25 million of property.

Little is known about why Huber set the fire, but according to an affidavit that led to his indictment, he had been ejected from a party shortly before he started the blaze. Huber discharged a fire extinguisher on a parked car "in a display of anger," before setting the fire the affidavit reads.

McDannel put the evening in simpler terms.

"It boils down to a drunken evening gone awry," she said.

Search warrants revealed evidence linking him to the scene of the crime, including first- and second-degree burns on his hands, and burn medicine prescribed the day after the fire. Initially Huber denied starting the fire.

Juneau District Attorney Doug Gardner declined to comment about the case other than to say that the plea will start bringing closure to the community. Gardner has recommended Huber serve five to eight years in prison, and pay full restitution to the victims. It is likely he also will serve a substantial amount of time on probation. The judge in the case, Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins, has discretion on how to sentence Huber.

Huber said little in court, politely answering Collins' questions. He stood quietly as he entered his guilty plea, dressed in a prison uniform with his arms bound in cuffs and his hands folded neatly in front of him. After the proceedings, McDannel said Huber plans to make a statement to the community at his sentencing hearing scheduled for Jan. 5.

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