A Little Rock woman admitted Friday in federal court that she set seven fires last year at the Forest Place Apartments in midtown, permanently displacing 90 people, causing at least $12.5 million in damage and injuring two Little Rock firefighters.
In exchange for prosecutors' promise to recommend a 12-year sentence when she returns to court for sentencing in about a month, Lacey Rae Moore, 44, pleaded guilty to charges involving two of the seven fires. At the same time, she took responsibility for the entire string of fires that for more than four months kept residents of the upscale complex, as well as police and firefighters, on edge.
One of the fires Moore admitted setting occurred on May 16, 2013. Unlike three previous fires she had set that were largely confined to a trash chute, this one spread, destroying one of the complex's two buildings and causing about 350 people to be evacuated in the middle of the night. The damage permanently displaced at least 79 of the residents in the complex's north building and left a firefighter with an ankle injury.
The other fire included in her guilty plea occurred on June 28, 2013, inside the complex's south building. Moore told U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes that she used gasoline to ignite a box of flammable objects that she placed in a first-floor hallway.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Givens said the location of that fire made it difficult for residents to escape, creating a strong risk of injury or death. He said about 100 people were safely evacuated, and 11 residents were permanently displaced.
Moore, who lived at the complex, told the judge that she set the fires because, "I was angry. A lot of things were going on in my life."
David Oliver, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified at a previous hearing that Moore told him she was upset about a recent breakup with a man she had just discovered had been cheating on her.
Givens told the judge that the loss so far to individual residents and owners of the apartment complex totals $12.5 million, although the amount could increase if additional claims are filed. He said Moore's plea agreement requires her to make full restitution.
When she was arrested in February, Moore readily confessed to setting most of the fires but told Oliver that she didn't remember setting all of them.
In court Friday morning, Moore agreed that even if she didn't remember setting all the fires, she wouldn't dispute it. She agreed that prosecutors could prove that she set them all, through testimony of various witnesses, as well as physical evidence, including the fact that authorities were able to pinpoint her location during each fire with the help of cellphone towers.
In contrast to her downcast, disheveled appearance at her February court appearance, Moore smiled easily on Friday and looked alert. She spoke in a strong, confident voice and wore her long, blond hair in a neat braid that fell over the right shoulder of her blue jail clothes.
Standing beside defense attorney Rick Holiman of Little Rock, when the judge asked about her level of education, Moore replied that she had two bachelor's degrees from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
At Holiman's request, Holmes agreed to request an expedited pre-sentence report to enable Moore to be transferred more quickly from the Pulaski County jail, where she has been held while awaiting trial, into a federal prison. Holiman said Moore has had an "ongoing issue" getting all of her medications in a timely matter at the jail and also has asthma, which compounds the problem.
Moore's case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson, but Wilson was unavailable Friday morning, so Holmes took the plea on his behalf. Moore's sentencing will be held before Wilson.
A sentencing date won't be set until the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services office prepares a comprehensive pre-sentence report on her background. It will also calculate a range of penalties suggested by federal sentencing guidelines.
Under federal statutes, Moore faces a sentence of between seven and 40 years, and a fine of up to $250,000 on her first charge of arson involving injury, and between five and 20 years, as well as a fine of up to $250,000, on the second charge of arson.
Givens told Holmes that prosecutors will ask Moore to serve the two minimum sentences consecutively for a total of 12 years.
Although her guilty plea applied to two specific fires, her sentence will be based on her conduct in all seven blazes.
Givens told the judge that all the fires occurred between midnight and 4:50 a.m. In chronological order, they occurred on Feb. 24, Feb. 25, May 15, May 16, June 4, June 22 and June 28.
A firefighter injured his shoulder while responding to the June 4 fire and underwent months of recovery.
The eight charges on which Moore was indicted on Feb. 6 include five counts of arson, two counts of arson resulting in injury and one count of possession of an unregistered destructive device. In return for her guilty plea to the two specific charges, Givens asked that the remaining charges be dismissed, and Holmes complied.
The eighth charge accused her of setting off an unregistered incendiary device on July 1, 2013, at a private residence.
In a news release issued Friday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer said, "There is no way to restore what people lost in the fires set by Lacey Moore at Forest Place Apartments. There is, however, some consolation in this plea today that Ms. Moore is being held responsible for the millions of dollars' worth of damage to the destroyed buildings, the injuries to the two valiant firefighters and the displacement of residents as a result of the fires she started."
Thyer commended officers from the ATF, the Little Rock police and fire departments, and the Arkansas State Police for "heroic efforts at saving lives and their investigative work on a puzzling string of fires."
Metro on 08/02/2014
Print Headline: Woman admits setting 7 fires at LR complex