Thursday June 9, 2011

BRATTLEBORO-- A Vernon woman stands accused of burning down her own house on Old Farm Road in Vernon last February with the help of her boyfriend.

Aaron M. Anderson, 39, of Madison Heights, Va., pleaded not guilty to first-degree arson, attempted first-degree arson, felony conspiracy and two counts of reckless endangerment Tuesday in the Windham Criminal Division of Vermont Superior Court.

Ronda L. Johnson, 52, of Vernon, faced identical charges with one additional charge of inciting, procuring or hiring another to commit a felony.

An affidavit by Detective Sergeant David Sutton of the State Police Fire Investigation Unit details conversations with both Johnson and Anderson in which they admit they started the fire Feb. 23 just before attending the funeral of Frank Johnson, Jr.

The house had been vacant and for sale for some time after Ronda Johnson’s husband, Douglas, died in November 2009. Johnson said she has been living with Anderson in Virginia.

Prior to Johnson’s funeral, she had not visited Vernon since October or November 2010, she said.

According to Sutton’s report, on Feb. 20 the caretaker for the property discovered that it appeared the house was broken into. In addition, a cord had been set up with an electrical timer and a cloth material which he believed was soaked in paint thinner. The electrical breaker was tripped.


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This would have been a viable ignition device if the circuit was not tripped and the cloth was adjacent to -- instead of wrapped around -- the frayed end of the cord, Sutton determined.

The affidavit states that both Anderson and Johnson admitted to investigators they worked to together to hatch a plan to burn down the house. When the first attempt failed, they allegedly tried again and were successful three days later.

According to court documents, they started the fire at about 8:30 a.m. before attending the funeral. Two men, returning from the funeral hours later, discovered the burning house and called 911.

Johnson claimed she did not destroy the house for insurance money, though she did have an insurance policy worth more than $300,000. Anderson told investigators that "the bottom line" was the fact that Johnson did not want her children to have the house.

The court set unsecured appearance bonds for each suspect at $2,500, which means they do not have to pay the court any money at this time but will have a warrant out for their arrest if they do not appear in court when they’re supposed to, according to court personnel.

If found guilty on either arson charge, Anderson and Johnson will face two to 10 years in jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both. The maximum penalty for conspiracy in Vermont is five years of jail time and a $500 fine. The multiple counts of reckless endangerment each carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

The additional charge that Johnson is facing -- inciting to commit a felony -- has a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $500 fine.

Jaime Cone can be reached at jcone@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 27