South Charleston man pleads guilty to setting apartment fires
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A South Charleston man accused of setting two fires at an apartment complex last year pleaded guilty in Kanawha Circuit Court, but insisted he is innocent.
A trial for Nicholas Hatfield, 21, was scheduled to begin this week. Instead, Hatfield entered a Kennedy-Frazier plea and was sentenced immediately to probation.
In that type of plea, a defendant may not admit guilt but concede prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him at trial and believe the move is in his best interests.
Hatfield pleaded guilty to a felony charge of first-degree arson in connection with a December fire at the Vickers Park Apartments on Amity Drive. No one was injured, but the building sustained $1,000 in damage.
Hatfield told Circuit Judge Charles King Tuesday, "I am a man of God, sir. I am an innocent man of this, but I want to use this as a testimony to other people."
Assistant Prosecutor Joey Spano said two fires were set in the laundry room and the office of the complex. He said when firefighters from Davis Creek Volunteer Fire Department responded, Hatfield asked them why it took them 20 minutes to arrive compared to the national average of seven minutes.
Spano said the fire chief suspected Hatfield and asked him how he knew when the fires started.
In an interview with state troopers, Hatfield at first denied any knowledge of the fires. But in a second interview, Spano told the judge, Hatfield confessed.
"He said he was smoking a marijuana pipe in the laundry room and when he heard a knock at the door he threw the pipe in a trash can," Spano said. "And it grew."
He said Hatfield fled, went to the office and found it locked. He crawled in through a window, pushed the desk against the door, took some cash from a drawer and lit some paper, which began the second fire.
"He said he did it to impress a girl who was married to someone else," Spano said.
Richard Holicker, Hatfield's public defense attorney, said, "If we had gone to trial, we would vigorously challenge much of that."
In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped a charge of petit larceny and breaking and entering. He faced a possible sentence of two to 20 years in prison, but they also agreed to recommend probation.
Hatfield spent 30 days in jail when he was arrested and has been on home confinement for eight months since he was released.
"If you grant me probation," he told the judge, "I'm going to start going to church on Wednesday nights. I want to be a preacher." "Well, good luck," King said. "If you are talking about saving souls, there are plenty of them out there."
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4832