In an emotional hearing in Northwest District Court Wednesday, a 24-year-old man admitted setting a fire that heavily damaged his family’s home and vowed to try and make things right.
Damon Baker, of Williston, pleaded guilty to arson and criminal mischief, both class B felonies, as well as resisting arrest, a class C felony, and ingesting a controlled substance and fleeing law enforcement, both misdemeanors. He was sentenced to five years in prison, with all but three years suspended, as part of a plea agreement and two charges of endangering by fire were dropped.
Baker was charged April 5 after police said he started a fire in the garage near his mother’s home on 72nd Street East, north of Spring Lake Park. Baker got gasoline, placed his cellphone in a metal pan, filled the pan with gas, created a trail of gas out of the garage, then lit that trail, Williams County Assistant State’s Attorney Nathan Madden said in court Wednesday.
The fire spread to the garage and then to the house, causing extensive damage. Baker’s mother and sister were both home at the time.
Baker told police he had used methamphetamine hours before the fire, and when police allowed him to smoke a cigarette, he tried to run away, Madden said.
He told Northwest District Judge Benjamen Johnson that the deal was reached because it would allow Baker to get treatment for substance abuse.
“There’s obviously a narcotics problem here,” he said.
Baker will serve three years of supervised probation after he’s released. Madden said he hoped that would ensure Baker’s behavior would change.
Kathryn Preusse, Baker’s attorney, said her client had been convicted of felonies in the past, but had mostly been given suspended sentences. He accepted the plea deal in part to spare his mother and sister from going through a trial, she said.
She told Johnson that she hoped treatment would help Baker turn his life around.
“Underlying all this is a severe substance abuse problem,” she said.
Baker’s mother, who gave a victim impact statement at the hearing, told Johnson that she and her daughter weren’t ever in danger and that Baker ran to warn her of the fire within seconds and tried to put it out using a fire extinguisher.
“In his right mind, he never would never hurt his home or his family,” she said.
His mother said she and Baker’s father had tried repeatedly to get him help for his substance abuse but were unable to.
“Williston has nothing,” she said.
She told Johnson that she knew Baker’s actions have consequences but that she misses her son, who has been in jail since the fire.
“If Damon is able to get treatment that changes his life and puts him on the right path, this will all be worth it,” she said.
She is, however, worried about her son going to prison.
“I’m scared of him going to the pen because I don’t believe anyone comes out of there better,” she said.
At the end of her victim impact statement, she addressed Baker directly.
“Damon, grandpa prays for you every night,” she said. “Please make the best of the treatment.”
Baker’s sister, who also gave a victim impact statement, said she’s seen a change in her brother since he’s been in jail.
“I really think treatment would be really good for Damon, and will keep him on the positive path he’s been on,” she said.
Baker apologized to his family and the court and promised he would try to make amends once he completed treatment and was released.
“None of this was supposed to happen,” he said.
Johnson told Baker that if he truly wanted to change, he would have to stop using drugs.
“I do believe that people can come out of prison as better people,” Johnson said to Baker. “That’s a decision you have to make for yourself.”