Two Anniston residents and a Lineville man have pleaded guilty to felony arson for using “Molotov cocktails” to burn down the historic Pinky Burns Cabin in the Talladega National Forest, federal court records show.
Grover Newell and Jennifer Megan Brooks, the 20-year-old Anniston residents, and Lineville native Jody Kyle Maples, 21, accepted plea agreements offered to them Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham, office spokeswoman Peggy Sanford said.
In September, a federal grand jury in Birmingham indicted Newell, Brooks and Maples on the felony charges.
Court records show the grand jury indicted Newell, Brooks and Maples on charges of burning down the cabin after hearing witness testimony that prosecutors brought forth as evidence.
Witnesses who lived near the cabin – named for a locally famous trapper, hunter and storyteller who lived there for decades before his death in 1999 – said they saw the defendants leaving the area of the cabin after it caught fire March 10, 2009, according to the plea agreement.
Soon after, Calhoun County deputies stopped a vehicle that met the description witnesses had provided and found the defendants in the car, along with components used to make incendiary devices known as “Molotov cocktails,” including Coleman fuel, rags, bottles and butane lighters.
Newell, Brooks and Maples all arrested charged that day with arson and indicted on those same charges two months ago, court records show.
But the guilty pleas signed by the three this week were not for the felony indictment charges, Sanford said.
Instead, during plea negotiations early this week, prosecutors agreed to enter a so-called “information” charge of “depredation of government property against the United States” in place of the indictment charge of arson.
An information charge is the equivalent of the indictment charge, Sanford said, as both are felony arson crimes.
The difference is the sentences that the two charges carry, Sanford and Bill Barnett, Maples’ defense attorney said.
The indictment charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.
The information charge does not carry that mandatory minimum; instead, it allows for a 10-year maximum sentence.
By pleading guilty to the information charge, Newell, Brooks and Maples avoid spending five mandatory years in prison, Barnett said.
“You’ve just got three young people who’ve acted totally differently than they have here-forth, with no criminal records until now,” Barnett said. “Five years in prison a heavy sentence for doing something truly stupid.”
Barnett said that he and the defense lawyers for Newell and Brooks were prepared to take their defendants’ case to a federal jury trial Monday if prosecutors had not agreed to enter the information charge.
Prosecutors have recommended that federal Judge Inge P. Johnson award the defendants “an appropriate reduction in offense level for [their] acceptances of responsibility.”
Barnett said the sentencing hearing for Newell, Brooks and Maples, court records is set for Feb. 15.