Guilty verdict burns West Point arsonist
LaGRANGE — When a West Point woman set fire to her eight-bedroom home two years ago, she wanted a $1.5 million insurance check — just like the one she’d gotten in 2007 when her first home burned to the ground, prosecutors allege.
Instead, on Friday a judge gave Dana Owens, 39, a dozen years in state prison after a jury convicted her on two counts of arson in the first degree; one count each for the mortgage and insurance companies she tried to swindle.
Troup County Superior Court Judge Travis Sakrison admonished Owens as he sentenced her late in the afternoon, and said she not only lied through the entire investigation and trial, but endangered the lives of firefighters who responded to the blaze she set in her home’s pantry on Jan. 8, 2013. Unfortunately for Owens, she botched the fire and it failed to spread past the pantry. An automatic fire alarm she may have thought was turned off even summoned the fire department to the home at 3016 Georgia Highway 18 in West Point.
Owens said nothing during the verdict and sentencing phases of her trial, but spent more than two hours on the witness stand Thursday and Friday collectively. She sniveled and wiped nonexistent tears from her face Thursday as her Columbus-based attorney, Stacey S. Jackson, questioned her about the circumstances surround the fire.
All along, Owens said she knew nothing of how the fire started. She told conflicted stories to investigators and the jury about a mountain of keepsakes and personal mementos found in a barn behind her home after the fire. At various stages of the investigation, she claimed she’d lugged her china, clothes, drapes and assorted other items from the home as firefighters were still on scene — although no firefighter saw her doing it. At other times, she told law enforcement agents she’d been cleaning out an office space before the fire and had stored bills and other important financial records there while she re-organized. For jurors, her story just didn’t add up.
“For me, it was how her story kept changing in all the videos (taped interviews),” one juror told the Daily News after Owens was taken away by sheriff’s deputies.
Owens’ motive in the case was simple, said prosecutor Ray Mayer of the Coweta Judicial Circuit’s District Attorney’s Office.
She was in over her head financially and was struggling to keep up her lifestyle, Mayer told the jury. On top of that, her marriage was on the rocks and she depended entirely on her husband and their trucking company for money.
She filed for divorce not even a month after the fire. Filings for alimony showed that Owens estimated she’d need $17,500 per month to keep up her costly way of life. Other filings showed she and her husband were taking in about $16,000 per month from their business. In the months prior to the fire, the bank was sending late notices about their mortgage and their homeowners insurance company was threatening to cancel their policy for nonpayment. A laundry list of overdraft and nonsufficient funds charges checkered their sometimes-overdrawn bank account.
That’s when Owens hatched her plan to rid herself of her husband, her debt and her house in one fell swoop, Mayer showed the jury.
First, Owens set about photographing the items and rooms in her home. A camera was found in their barn after the fire showing nearly every room in the home with itemized photos on a memory card. As a former insurance agent, Owens may have known she’d need the photographs to file a claim later. Then, she moved the precious items — the ones that her insurance company couldn’t replace — into the family’s barn, Mayer said.
On the afternoon of Jan. 8, she set a small fire in her pantry without using an accelerant like gasoline, jurors found. Paper or plastic would have worked fine to start the fire, Fire Marshal Kevin Norred of the Troup County Fire Department said. Once the fire was kindled, she left the house and went to her parents’ home near Lake Harding. Her then-husband, who was out of town at the time, called her later and told her the alarm company had alerted him to smoke in the house. Owens left her parents and came back to her house to find firefighters already on the scene; they’d managed to contain the fire.
It didn’t take long for investigator William Grizzard of the Troup County Sheriff’s Office to become suspicious. The night of the fire, after finding the barn full of household items, he told the Owenses, “I’m going to be real honest with you, a lot of the stuff in that barn looks like it came from your house.”
It took investigators and prosecutors two years to investigate and indict Owens on the arson charges. Grizzard arrested Owens during a June divorce hearing in the very same courtroom where her arson trial would later be held.
Owens could have received a stiffer sentence than she did; each of the two arson counts carried with it a sentence of not less than one but no more than 20 years. The judge also ordered Owens remain on probation after she leaves prison. She was ordered to serve a total of 40 years, 12 of which will be served in prison and the balance on probation.
She must also pay restitution to her insurance company to the tune of more than $130,000 once she is released.
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