Woman sentenced to jail time for Rankin arson that killed pets

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A young woman who purposely set a house on fire and burned it to the ground -- destroying the belongings of an Iraqi war veteran and killing two dogs, a cat and two kittens -- was sentenced to 1 to 2 years at the Allegheny County Jail Thursday.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Philip A. Ignelzi said he did not find that the death of the animals rose to such a level as to require him to sentence Shirley Williams in the aggravated range of the guidelines, which would have called for 31/2 years in state prison.

"There's no dispute there was no loss of life or injury to any person," Judge Ignelzi said. "It is clear the defendant has taken steps to address the driving force behind some of the behavior," which he noted included substance abuse and mental illness.

The judge said he would not parole Williams at her minimum, and instead said he wanted to see how she does in jail. He also ordered her to serve 10 years' probation and pay $50,000 in restitution to Dorothia West, who rented the house and lost everything in the fire.

Williams, 22, who has been held at the Allegheny County Jail since March, pleaded guilty in October to arson, burglary and reckless endangerment.

According to the criminal complaint, the fire was reported about 1:15 p.m. March 8 at a home at 328 Fifth Ave. in Rankin.

Williams had been in a relationship with Miesha Johnson, Ms. West's daughter. The two lived together for a time, but Ms. Johnson said Williams abused her, and she ultimately moved out.

Police said the day of the fire, Williams and a co-defendant, Bria Robinson, bought lighter fluid at a convenience store and then broke into the home.

They stole several items, including jewelry, poured lighter fluid on the carpet of a first-floor bedroom and then lit it, the complaint said.

Assistant district attorney Rachel Fleming asked Judge Ignelzi to sentence Williams to 5 to 10 years in prison.

"The defendant in this case was motivated by rage and revenge," she said. "She burned this house to the ground. This was a conflagration."

Ms. Fleming told the court the defendants knew the animals were in the home when they set the fire.

"It shows a blatant cruelty and disregard for life," she said.

Ms. Fleming also noted that Williams has a recent conviction for stealing a firearm from a vehicle, for which Judge Ignelzi previously imposed a sentence of probation.

But Williams' defense attorney Adam Bishop, argued that his client had a troubled childhood and had never been properly treated for her mental illness or substance abuse.

"Shirley has accepted responsibility for her terrible and impulsive actions," he said. "She's remorseful."

Mr. Bishop argued that his client should not receive an aggravated-range sentence.

"I don't think the loss of property and pets -- while extremely tragic -- qualifies as an aggravating circumstance.

"The defendants knew no one was home when they set it."

Williams apologized both to the court and to Ms. Johnson.

"I'm not a bad person. I just made a terrible, impulsive decision," she said. "My intentions were not to hurt Miesha Johnson nor did I ever imagine at the time the damage my actions would cause."

Since being incarcerated, Williams said she has gotten her GED and begun taking medication for her mental health issues.

"I stand here a different person than I was 10 months ago," she said.

Ms. Robinson pleaded guilty only to reckless endangerment and was ordered by Judge Ignelzi to serve two years' probation.

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.


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