BRATTLEBORO -- A Vernon couple is behind bars after a judge sentenced each to serve time for setting a house on fire in February 2011, endangering the lives of more than 50 emergency responders.
On Tuesday, Judge David Suntag sentenced Rhonda L. Johnson, 53, of Vernon and her boyfriend, 31-year-old Aaron Anderson, to serve three to five years all suspended except for six months for Johnson and three months for Anderson.
Johnson claimed she wasn’t in a "right state of mind" when she and Anderson set the house on fire.
"If I was ... I would have taken precious things out of the house," she said.
Suntag said that determining a just sentence starts with the crime. Both Johnson and Anderson were convicted of first-degree arson after they set Johnson’s home along Old Farm Road ablaze on Feb. 23, 2011, just before attending a funeral.
"There are fewer things more dangerous than arson," Suntag said during Johnson’s sentencing hearing. "Once you start a fire it can go anywhere, do anything, you can no longer control it like you can a weapon."
Johnson’s attorney, Mimi Brill, had asked Judge Suntag to suspend the entire sentence citing her client’s reduced mental state after her husband, Douglas Johnson, died in November 2009.
"We’re disappointed but we certainly respect the judge’s decision," Brill said.
The judge said Johnson’s crime was even worse because
"This could have been a case involving serious injury or death and you did nothing to prevent it," Suntag said to Johnson. "I can’t excuse what you did."
Deputy State’s Attorney Steve Brown said he agreed with Suntag’s ruling.
"The sentence reflects the serious nature of the crime and the danger the first responders put themselves in because of Johnson’s criminal conduct," Brown said. "The Vermont State Police, especially fire investigator Det. Sgt. David Sutton, did a fabulous job and worked well with the other departments. That’s why we have an outcome that’s just and appropriate today. I was also pleased that retired Vernon Fire Chief (David) Andrews was able to give us a clear picture of what happened that night."
Although no one was seriously injured as a result of fighting the blaze, Andrews told the Reformer the sentence for Johnson and Anderson probably wasn’t enough.
"Having worked with the prosecution and the State Fire Inspection Team I respect the court’s decision and I’m glad about the two first-degree arson convictions," he said. "As someone who was intimately involved in this case, three to six months doesn’t begin to serve justice. But I understand the system."
Andrews said what bothered him most was not just how many lives were at risk, but that the two responsible, and especially Johnson, knew how dangerous an arson fire can be.
"She knew, for 22 years she knew. The wife of a firefighter knows the dangers they face," Andrews said.
At the scene more than 50 emergency responders from Brattleboro, Guilford, Putney, Vernon, Northfield and Gill, Mass., fire departments as well as the Vernon Police and the Vermont State Police were all dispatched to the home, Andrews said.
It was also at least the second time Johnson and Anderson had attempted to burn the house down, according to the affidavit.
The house had been vacant and for sale for several months after her husband died and Johnson said she was living with Anderson in Virginia until a few days before attending a family funeral service.
Johnson claimed she didn’t destroy her home for insurance money, though she did have a policy worth more than $300,000, according to court documents.
Both Johnson and Anderson were taken into custody following their sentencing hearings Tuesday to begin serving their time.