Allison T. Williams

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 3, 2006

Staff writer

A 19-year-old Suffolk man, charged with starting a fire in a downtown church last fall, could spend up to three decades in prison.

In a deal brokered with the state, James Dean Henderson pleaded guilty Thursday in Suffolk Circuit Court to one count of arson and one merged count of statutory burglary and grand larceny.

Henderson, who has been held in Western Tidewater Regional Jail since his arrest in late October, will be sentenced on April 13. Judge Westbrook Parker ordered a pre-sentencing report on Thursday.

Henderson could be sentenced to up to 30 years on the convictions, said Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jeff James.

Henderson will have to begin paying restitution, including court costs and more than $200,000 in damage to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, after his sentencing, Parker said.

Henderson was arrested at a home on Wilroy Road about a week after somebody broke into and set fire to the small church that sits on the corner of South Broad and Smith streets.

Firefighters called out to the 4 a.m. blaze Oct. 7 found a back door unlocked and flames shooting through a hallway and room adjacent to the sanctuary, James said.

Several items were stolen from the room, including two TVs, a projector, a safe, and a case of sacramental wine used for communion, James said. Police followed a trail of stolen items n such as lose projector parts n to a home on Linden Avenue, less than two block from the church, and recovered the safe.

Although Henderson has admitted to breaking into the church, he has denied setting the fire, James said. However, he is being held legally accountable because fire investigators have determined he was inside the church committing a felony when the fire was set.

“Accidental causes of fire have been ruled out,” James said, adding there were several boxes of candles in the room where the fire started.

A candle had been lit earlier in the day in the sanctuary, James said. Church officials reported that it was extinguished after the evening Bible study and that there was no fire damage in the area where that candle had been used.

In January, while he was incarcerated, a grand jury handed down indictments charging Henderson including assault and battery, drunk in public and disorderly conduct. The charges stem from a September 2005 incident.

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