Arsonist gets ‘slap on wrist’

Convict gets no jail time,
faces $1.3M restitution

Although respectful of the judge’s decision, the building owner of last year’s Family Dollar Store fire didn’t agree that the suspect should escape without jail time.

“I’m very disappointed in the sentencing,” said Tom Maley. “It was a slap on the wrist.”

On Tuesday, April 22, Chief District Court Judge Doug Walker opted not to sentence James Alexander to jail, despite a request by District Attorney Will Furse to impose a 45-day sentence.

“Forty-five days in jail would be a significant consequence,” Furse argued at Tuesday’s sentencing hearing. “We have to deter future acts.”

Instead, the 20-year-old arsonist was ordered to 90 days of electronic home monitoring, 24 months of probation, a mental evaluation and random drug and alcohol testing.

After learning of the judge’s decision, Cortez Fire Protection District Chief Jeff Vandevoorde told The Cortez Journal Friday morning that he thought the sentence was “disrespectful” to the city’s full-time firefighters and the volunteer firefighters from Mancos, Dolores and Lewis-Arriola who responded to the scene.

“Someone could have easily been killed,” said Vandevoorde. “I think the sentence is a slap in the face to all those who risked their lives. It’s an injustice that this person did not get any jail time.”

Some 30 area firefighters responded to battle the blaze, and Vandevoorde said he is thankful none were injured.

Alexander’s plea deal also puts him on the hook financially. He faces more than $1.3 million in restitution. Walker granted a defense request from Durango attorney Becky Briggs for a restitution hearing. The half-day hearing was set for 1:30 p.m. on July 17.

“You’ll essentially be on probation for the rest of your life due to the amount of restitution,” Walker told Alexander.

Despite his disappointment regarding the lack of jail time, Maley said he was very appreciative of efforts by local firefighters who responded to the blaze, as well as the subsequent investigation by Cortez Police Department detectives and the work by Furse to prosecute the case.

“I was very impressed with the professionalism of all the agencies,” Maley said. Maley opted not to address the court at sentencing.

Alexander also declined to comment, and allowed Briggs to speak on his behalf. She described her client as a “model citizen,” and said no one would benefit by sending him to jail.

“There was never any maliciousness in this case,” Briggs told Walker.

Walker said his sentencing decision boiled down to whether Alexander was truthful in his claim that he did not act recklessly or he in fact started the fire because he has significant mental health issues.

“Neither are reasons to impose jail,” Walker said.

Furse said he believed the defendant had yet to understand the consequences of his actions, adding that Alexander had done a “poor job” of accepting his responsibility.

“We want him to man up,” Furse told Walker.

At a plea hearing in January, Alexander pleaded guilty to arson, but insisted he didn’t commit the crime. At that hearing, Alexander read prepared written remarks, stating prosecutors had “failed to recognize the truth.”

“I don’t want to go to trial,” he said in January.

The initial plea deal was rejected, but Alexander again pleaded guilty to arson at a subsequent hearing in March. He was charged last September on a lone count of first-degree arson and two counts of fourth-degree arson. If convicted, he faced up to six years in prison.

According to investigators, an unknown accelerant was used at four separate points of origin in connection to the May 14, 2013, fire at the Cortez Plaza Shopping Center on E. Main Street.

Alexander reportedly was hired as an assistant manager at the Family Dollar Store about a week before the blaze.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com