Man gets up to 20 months for fire at petting barn
By Kathy Chaffin
A co-defendant in a series of automobile and commercial break-ins told investigators that Jerry Lane Harwood admitted to setting the fire that destroyed the Petting Barn at Dan Nicholas Park, killing 43 animals trapped inside.
Harwood was sentenced Friday to 16 to 20 months after pleading no contest to burning a public building.
Assistant District Attorney Karen Biernacki said in Rowan Superior Court that Joshua Dunaway told investigators Harwood said he killed a deer that walked up to him in the barn before setting the fire. Dunaway, who faces charges in break-ins in the Rockwell area with Harwood, has not yet been tried.
A parent called Crimestoppers with information that led to Harwood’s arrest. The parent’s child had heard about Harwood setting the fire from one of his friends.
Biernacki said the friend told investigators Harwood told him he slit a deer’s throat, drew a pentagram on the ground and performed “some type of ritual” before setting the fire.
When interviewed by investigators, Harwood, who was 17 at the time of the fire on March 19, 2006, denied setting it and said “he was just talking big to impress the other people.”
Harwood’s page on the MySpace social networking site at the time of his April 19, 2008, arrest featured a photo of himself, a large picture of the Grim Reaper and a pentagram with two points up as typically used by satanic groups under the caption, “Angel of Death.”
The page also included Harwood’s explanation for the caption: “My nickname is the Angel of Death because I once took a 12-gauge out on the back porch and killed everything that moved including the neighbors’ chickens and pets.”
Defense Attorney Steve Gray said the defendant had chosen to plead no contest as part of a plea arrangement “contrary to my advice” for several reasons.
One was the emotional aspects of the case, which Gray said would be a factor in a jury trial. “Everybody’s an animal lover,” he said. “Everybody has a pet, a dog or cat … and anybody who is not sensitive to animals is not a human being.”
Another reason was that Harwood, now 19, was AWOL from the Marine Corps when he was charged. Gray said he had completed boot camp on Parris Island, S.C., but had deserted the base due to problems with his girlfriend, who was putting pressure on him and threatening to commit suicide.
Judge John Holshouser said earlier in the hearing that he had to treat the no contest plea “as a guilty plea for sentencing purposes.”
Biernacki said he received the maximum 16- to 20-month sentence for burning the petting barn and that state statutes only allow more time in prison for animal cruelty if they have enough prior convictions to warrant it.
Though Harwood had been charged with other offenses ó none of them involving animal cruelty ó they were not serious enough under the statutes for Holshouser to impose an active sentence for the animal cruelty charges.
Holshouser, in sentencing Harwood, said he was following the rules set by the General Assembly. Class I felonies are the least severe on a scale of A to I, with A being first-degree murder.
The burning of a public building is a Class H felony for which active sentences can be imposed.
“For me personally,” Biernacki said after the sentencing, “the property crimes were not the real issue here. It was the senseless killing of those animals.”
Harwood also received an active sentence of six to eight months for breaking into a laundromat and tile store in April of 2008 and five suspended six-to-eight-month sentences for the animal cruelty and motor vehicle break-in charges.
In sentencing Harwood, Holshouser said he was imposing a “very severe and strenuous probationary period,” and reminded the defendant that if he violated the conditions that he would end up serving the additional sentences.
“Do you understand that?” he asked the defendant.
As part of the plea arrangement, Harwood will receive credit for almost 14 months spent in the Rowan County Detention Center and will, upon his release, be on supervised probation for 48 months. During this time, Holshouser ruled that he is not to own a pet or weapon.
The judge also sentenced Harwood to 100 hours of community service upon his release, specifying that none of the work is to involve the animal shelter or put him in contact with animals.
Harwood was also ordered to pay $1,000 in court costs, the $300 lab fee for crime scene sample analysis by the SBI, the legal fees of court-appointed attorney and more than $2,400 in restitution to victims of the break-ins.
Holshouser also ordered him to submit to a psychological evaluation and recommended treatment; refrain from using any illegal or controlled substances unless prescribed; and be subject to breath or blood samples and warrantless searches during his probation.
Detective Sam Henline of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office testified at the hearing that he and fellow Detective David Earnhardt and investigators from the SBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Enforcement were asked by Fire Marshal Art Delaney to investigate the crime scene a day and a half after the fire.
Henline said they ruled out faulty electrical wiring and a lightning strike as causes of the fire and used trained canines to search for evidence of accelerants that could have been used to start the fire. Three samples taken from the scene tested positive for residual gasoline, he said, and a fourth tested positive for hydrocarbons consistent with properties of residual gasoline.
The detective also testified that the wavy areas in photos taken at the scene were consistent with accelerant pour patterns. “It looks sort of like an oil slick,” he said. “It mimics a rainbow effect.”
Biernacki said Harwood had been a volunteer firefighter for Rockwell and could have learned about fire accelerants during his training.
Henline said he found carcasses of six small animals in the debris of the fire. The larger carcasses had already been removed, he said.
Biernacki praised investigators for staying on the case even though an arrest wasn’t made until 13 months after the fire. “They’re to be commended on that,” she said.
Holshouser met with Biernacki and Gray in his chambers before sentencing. When court resumed, Jean Harwood spoke on behalf of her great-grandson.
“Just take your time, we’re in no hurry,” Holshouser said when she broke down on her way to the witness stand.
After regaining her composure, Jean Harwood said Jerry had lived with her and her husband, who died eight years ago, since he was 7 years old.
Gray said earlier the defendant doesn’t know where his mother is, though she is believed to live in Kansas. Jerry Harwood’s father lives in Tennessee, the defense attorney said, and also has a criminal record.
Jean Harwood said Jerry was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when he was in kindergarten and had undergone therapy for it. He was very smart, she said, and could have been an A student if he had worked harder.
When he was in the third grade, Jean Harwood said Jerry’s teachers called her to come to the school because he was curled up in a corner and wouldn’t get up. “He was screaming somebody was going to hit him,” she said.
Jean Harwood said Jerry has always loved animals. “He’s got a dog and a cat of his own,” she said. “He had two cats, and one of them got poisoned.”
Jerry Harwood’s dream was to be a Marine, she said. He was in the ROTC and went out for football in high school, she said, but dropped out because it interfered with his part-time job.
Holshouser said in the sentencing that he was ordering the psychological evaluation based on Jean Harwood’s testimony.
The judge referred to the “terrible sadness” throughout the community after the fire.
Speaking directly to Harwood, Holshouser said he was the youngest defendant to appear before him with so many charges.
“You have your entire life ahead of you …” he said. “I hope for your sake that you will abide by the probation.”Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-7683.