WILKES-BARRE — Jody Wayne Owens hung his head Tuesday when a Luzerne County jury returned a guilty verdict, finding him responsible for torching his Wilkes-Barre home, which he had remodeled.
Owens, 35, was convicted of four counts of arson and a single count of failure to prevent a catastrophe.
The jury deliberated for 90 minutes after listening to testimony and viewing pictures of the fire-damaged house at 198 Gardner Ave. during the two-day trial before Judge Lesa Gelb.
Gelb permitted Owens to remain free on bail until he is sentenced April 26. Owens was ordered to wear an ankle bracelet and refrain from drugs and alcohol.
Owens testified in his own defense Tuesday, admitting he trashed the inside of his house on Aug. 18, 2011, after receiving a letter from his ex-wife, Cynthia, demanding child support and a letter from the property mortgage holder that foreclosure proceedings had begun.
City Fire Inspector Capt. Alan Klapat testified fires were set in the attic and two bedrooms.
Owens’ lawyer, Charles Ross, said his client could not have ignited the blaze in the attic and bedroom because there was no blood in the vicinity of the fires. If Owens did indeed set the fire, there would have been blood on the attic pull-down ladder and in the bedroom, Ross said. Owens suffered a severe hand injury from punching walls and swinging a baseball bat, damaging ceiling fans and doors, Ross said.
Ross blamed Owens’ lifelong friend, Shane Chiverella, whom he said lit a toilet paper roll on fire in the attic.
But Chiverella and Owens’ friend Bernard Miller testified Owens was by himself on the second floor for one to two minutes before they drove to a pizza restaurant to buy beer.
Owens testified Chiverella was on the second floor while he was on the first floor before they left. Owens said he was aware a fire was raging in the attic and bedroom but decided not to call 911.
“We’re not looking to get a free pass here,” Ross told the jury during closing statements. “He is guilty of not calling 911.”
The prosecution said it was worse than that.
“The defendant did start the fire on his property,” Assistant District Attorney Shannon Crake said. “He’s the only one who had motive.”
Crake repeatedly reminded jurors during the trial and in her closing statements that Owens had told his friends and a neighbor he wanted to find someone to burn the house because Owens did not want anyone to enjoy his hard work remodeling the structure.