Jury finds suspected arsonist guilty
The jury in a trial for a Cloquet man accused of burglary and arson took approximately 90 minutes to declare him guilty of both charges. Eriberto Martinez Smith, 23, was accused of setting fire to his girlfriend's home on the Fond du Lac Reservat...
The jury in a trial for a Cloquet man accused of burglary and arson took approximately 90 minutes to declare him guilty of both charges.
Eriberto Martinez Smith, 23, was accused of setting fire to his girlfriend's home on the Fond du Lac Reservation and refusing to leave early in the morning of Sept. 19, 2010, after allegedly entering the home against her wishes and when no one else was at the residence.
While it was clear from evidence presented during the trial that Smith set the fire with the primary intention of harming himself - the first officer on the scene said Smith said to leave him alone, he just wanted to die - it was still arson because he set the fire deliberately and there was an intent to destroy or damage the dwelling, Carlton County attorney Thom Pertler argued.
"He wasn't trying to give the house a facelift or makeover, he started a fire," Pertler told the jury in his closing arguments. "He was trying to destroy or damage and that's exactly what he did."
One of the most dramatic pieces of evidence presented during the trial was the video of the incident retrieved from Cloquet Police Sgt. Carey Ferrell's squad car.
Farrell was one of the first to report to the scene and enter the burning building in an attempt to extricate Smith. Though he testified he could hear Smith inside the house screaming - this was audible on the video - he was unable to get Smith out without help because Smith had a knife and was resisting
Farrell - who did get the knife away from Smith and assisted in the successful rescue later - was later hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
Cloquet Area Fire District Battalion Chief Steve Kolodge also took the witness stand and testified that Capt. Scott Castleman, also of the CAFD, then entered the house with a taser and was successful in getting Smith out.
The house in question belonged to Alyssa Peterson, Smith's long-time girlfriend and the mother of their two children. Pertler argued that because only her name and their son's name was on the contract-for-deed lease, that Smith had no right to enter the home against her wishes, even though he stayed there frequently and had possessions there.
Peterson was the first witness in the two-and-a-half-day trial. She confirmed she had told Smith not to come back to the house after he reneged on an agreement to watch their children while Peterson went out with her cousin, Denise Diver. Later the two cousins would find Smith outside the bar, rummaging through Peterson's car; at that time he took Peterson's cell phone.
Diver was the second witness. She also testified that Peterson had told Smith not to return, adding that she had taken his clothes out of the residence and put them in her truck sometime that night. Diver also told how she had gone back to Peterson's house later, because Smith was sending suicidal text messages from Peterson's cell phone.
The text messages helped establish timeline for the events leading up the fire. Although Smith's attorney, Jennifer Barry, objected to including the messages in the trial on grounds that they were hearsay, Judge Robert Macaulay overruled her objection.
Derek Randall, the computer forensics detective for the Cloquet Police Department, read the text messages to the jury, which Smith sent to Diver from a phone he'd taken from Peterson earlier that night.
At 12:35, Smith wrote "OK, just let me get my [stuff]."
The next message Randall read was sent at 3:41 a.m.: "Well, have fun with your [racial expletive] boyfriends and tell my kids I love them. Have a good life. You can be mad at me when I'm gone. You'll know what I'm talking about tomorrow."
Diver got the last text at 3:47 a.m.: "My left wrist bleeding. lol [laugh out loud]."
Diver drove to the house and talked to Smith and then called the police after seeing Smith cut his wrist and again when she saw smoke coming out of the back of the house.
Barry argued that the cause of the fire was "pure speculation" because no one witnessed Smith start the fire and because Jason Maki, fire investigator for the CAFD, and State Fire Marshall Mark Tremaine didn't agree whether there was one or two points of origin for the fire.
Smith will be sentenced for first-degree arson and second-degree burglary in Carlton County Court March 16.