Hilmer Lee Harris, 21, 102 Loch Lomond Rd., Philipsburg, an inmate of the jail, pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy/arson, two counts of arson, and three counts of recklessly endangering another person. He was sentenced to five to 10 years in state prison. He must pay restitution of $2,232 and he was fined $6 plus costs.
The charges stem from an incident on Nov. 3, 2010 when a mobile home in Decatur Township was destroyed by fire. The home was occupied at the time by three people, including Deanna Nevel’s ex-husband.
Deanna Marie Nevel, 31, Winburne, pleaded guilty in October to criminal conspiracy/murder in the first degree and criminal conspiracy/arson. At that time, she was sentenced to eight to 20 years in state prison.
Prior to sentencing Harris’s attorney, Douglas Chester explained to Judge Paul Cherry that Harris has a long history of learning problems and his IQ is between 55 and 59, which is lower than the average IQ of 90 to 109. A partial psychiatric evaluation was done on Harris, but it could not be completed due to lack of funds. He stated Harris tends to be passive but is greatly influenced by others.
“By himself he’s not a threat to society,” he said, adding that further punishment was not going to change him. He asked for Harris to serve part of his time in the county jail and the remainder on home detention. He urged Cherry not to send Harris to state prison where he would become a victim.
Chester reminded the court that Harris confessed the first time he had contact with police and gave investigators details on the crimes. He stated that Nevel signed a plea agreement because Harris was ready to testify against her.
At the time of the fire, Harris was involved with Nevel and she manipulated him, Chester claimed. Nevel even took Harris’s social security disability check and only gave him a few dollars. He also stated that she controlled his medications for anxiety and mood disorders.
“She controlled his medication and controlled him,” Chester said. She made him “her puppet.”
Cherry gave Chester 15 days to supply information on a suitable structured home program, and agreed not to have Harris transferred to state prison until after he had a chance to review that information.
It was noted that Harris has already served almost a year in jail. According to the affidavit, one of the victims was awakened by a cat and after he smelled smoke he was able to get everyone out through a rear door. They were only outside for a few minutes when the windows in the area where the fire started, broke out. An officer examining the area could smell a petroleum product which was possibly gasoline.
Police also investigated a second suspicious fire at a two-story home in Boggs Township that her ex-husband was repairing. Officers became aware of the connection after speaking with Harris.
In his interview with police, Harris stated that he traveled to the trailer that night with three other people: Nevel, Walter Vega and Kacey Fisher. After they arrived he and Vega got out of the vehicle with plans to burn the trailer down. They were going to stuff a rag in the gas tank of a vehicle parked outside and light it, causing the vehicle to explode, he said. But they saw that the gas cap had a lock on it. They then went to the side of the trailer, where Vega poured gas on a rag and placed it onto the copper line. Vega also poured gas on the ground near the tank and on a garbage container at the corner of the trailer. Harris claimed he was just a look out for Vega.
At the house, Harris said only Vega got out of the vehicle with the gas can and walked to the building. After he returned, Harris could see the flames coming out of the back of the home. Harris blamed the whole idea on Fisher and Vega. He was asked if he knew people were in the trailer and he said yes, because the vehicle was there. Harris stated he didn’t warn them because he said the plan was to kill them.