ROCKLAND — Discarded cans of Budweiser beer led police to the ex-husband of a woman whose home was extensively damaged by fire more than three years ago.
Charles Henry Johnson, 53, pleaded guilty Tuesday in Knox County Superior Court to aggravated criminal mischief, burglary, theft and trafficking in prison contraband. The sentencing agreement calls for a 12-year jail sentence with all but four years suspended and five years probation.
The four years to be served in jail is a cap, and the defense can argue for less when the sentencing hearing is held.
Johnson pleaded guilty through an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit to committing a crime but pleads guilty because he or she believes the state has sufficient evidence to convict.
The fire occurred in December 2009 at Johnson’s ex-wife’s home on Serenity Lane in Union. The couple had been divorced for several years and she had been granted the house in the divorce. The agreement called for him to get a share of the proceeds if the house sold, but it had not, according to District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau.
The prosecutor told Justice Jeffrey Hjelm at Tuesday’s hearing that Johnson would stop by the house uninvited. He would leave Budweiser beer cans as his calling card, Rushlau said.
On the day of the fire, the woman had put wood into the stove, left the house and locked the doors. When she returned that afternoon, she found the house on fire.
No specific cause of the fire was determined, although investigators believed it had a human element and started in the wood box.
A Budweiser beer can was found outside the house and DNA taken from the can matched Johnson’s profile, according to the prosecutor. The can was determined to be recently manufactured and thus not an old one.
There were also footprints found in the snow that went to a neighboring home and neighboring camp. Two more Budweiser cans were found near those buildings and DNA taken from the cans also matched Johnson’s profile. Investigators found that the person who broke into the neighboring home had consumed liquor and ate an entire jar of pickles. Pickles were one of Johnson’s favorite foods, the prosecutor said.
When police located Johnson a few days later in Portland, he said he had not been to the house and spent that day and night at the Navigator Motor Inn in Rockland.
But that year, the Navigator had closed for the winter just after Columbus Day.
Johnson’s former wife said he had later approached her and demanded his share of the proceeds from the settlement with the insurance company over the fire.
The prosecutor said when a state fire marshal investigator questioned him after that alleged conversation, Johnson initially denied his identity. Rushlau noted, however, that the investigator had previously interviewed the suspect.
Defense attorney Jeremy Pratt said his client entered the pleas because the risk of trial was too great. Johnson had initially been indicted in October 2011 with arson but that was reduced to the aggravated criminal mischief in the plea deal reached Tuesday.
Pratt noted that there were no signs of forced entry and no one can explain how Johnson could have gotten into the house.
After the hearing Tuesday, Pratt criticized the prosecution for the length of time it took to reach the agreement.
“This plea agreement is one that should have been made a long time ago. It’s sad that justice had to be delayed and tens of thousands of dollars wasted because the district attorney could not make an offer until today even though the crimes occurred in 2009. With this kind of irresponsibility, its easy to see why Maine is struggling financially,” Pratt said.
He said the offer made Tuesday was the first made by the prosecution in this case.
Johnson has been in jail since October 2011.
Sentencing is expected to be held within the month.