Up in flames
Convicted arsonist gets an earful at sentencing
The tension was thick when Evan Paul Felver entered a small, packed courtroom at Butte County Superior Court on a misty morning last Friday (Jan. 8). Recently convicted of arson for the fire at a downtown Chico antique store in June 2009, the 22-year-old wore a dress shirt and tie to his sentencing hearing, accompanied by friends for support.
Eighth and Main Antiques Center housed items from 100 consigners and 45 vendors, and about a dozen or so of them attended the hearing to tell the court firsthand how their lives have changed since the incident. The smoke, soot, steam, ash, heat and, of course, the water firefighters used to extinguish the blaze devastated thousands of collectibles at the popular business.
Among the courtroom gallery sat Dorothy and Ray Miller, an elderly couple who supplemented their Social Security income with profits from vintage dresses, hats, furniture and oil paintings. The Millers said more than 60 percent of their collection was destroyed, and that they are struggling to make ends meet.
But perhaps the most compelling and tragic of the stories came from Mary Ring, a Kenyan woman who lost her entire collection and can no longer send money to her family in Africa. Ring wept as she described losing her home and how she is now sleeping in her car.
“I have nobody here to help me,” she said, sobbing.
A recent visit to the antique center revealed the destruction—both to the vendors’ items and the building itself. At least 11 booths—five downstairs and six upstairs—were destroyed by the blaze, which began at the back corner of the two-story building on the corner of Eighth and Wall streets.
“It’s pretty much a total loss for me,” said Marc Moretti, owner of the business, who also sells antiques.
The structure has since been cleared out, stripped of its sheetrock, plaster, bathroom and kitchen, and cleaned of asbestos from beneath its floor tiles. “It looks like a movie scene,” said Moretti as he stood in the chilly, empty and scorched building last week.
Moretti and his wife, Yesenia, have been keeping the business alive by running it out of an on-site warehouse but are eager for construction, which is on hold as a local construction firm deals with insurance issues. It’s a waiting game for the couple, who say business has severely diminished in a space with faulty bathrooms and no heating or air conditioning.
In addition to the costs of renovating the warehouse, the Morettis are paying rent on five storage units and other spaces to hold their antiques.
The Morettis organized the contingent of vendors who spoke during the hearing, and the comments ranged from emotional pleas to severe tongue lashings.
Felver, who pleaded no contest to a lesser arson charge in September, never turned his head during the victims’ statements, but he did not appear emotionless. He sat with his head slumped, and at one point wiped tears from his cheek.
Many vendors are split as to whether the fire was intentionally set, but Felver’s attorney, Dane Cameron, contends the blaze was accidental. Felver ignited the building, he maintains, while attempting to set a black widow spider on fire in an outside doorway at the back of the structure. Cameron said there was “no doubt” that alcohol fueled his client’s actions, but he called the assertion that Felver intentionally caused the fire “repugnant.”
Butte County Superior Court Judge Kristen Lucena noted that the court had received myriad letters from co-workers, former employers and other members of the community attesting to Felver’s positive character. Cameron addressed the court and described him as someone who “loves Chico. This is his hometown and he did a very stupid thing.”
After the victims made their statements to the court, the judge acknowledged that while Felver does appear to have a history of alcohol abuse, he had a “minimal criminal history” prior to the arson conviction. “He is remorseful,” Lucena said.
Felver was sentenced to 120 days in jail for the arson conviction, and an additional 60 days stemming from a DUI conviction in 2006. He also was given five years of probation, which includes a slew of requirements such as 200 hours of community service, substance-abuse programs, drug testing and mandatory employment or proof of job searches.
That last part may be most significant to the fire victims, since Felver was ordered to fully repay them. His restitution hearing was continued to Feb. 26, when a final amount—which Moretti claims is likely to exceed $300,000—will be determined through the evaluation of appraisals by the district attorney and the defense.
Donnie Davis and her husband, Don Pustejovsky, both retired Chico State employees, sold vintage hats and women’s gloves, purses, jewelry and other goods, such as tools, knives, antique fishing gear and pocket watches at the center. The couple have rented a storage unit to hold salvageable items they have no room for at home.
Davis, who has collected antiques since grade school, said the couple hoped that selling the lifelong collection would be a supplement to their retirement income. Instead, they have spent the last six months trying to save the few items they have left.
“One part of us, all of [the vendors] I think, want to just put him in jail forever,” Davis said outside of court, referring to Felver. “But that’s not right, and it doesn’t do anybody any good.
“But we’d like to see him own up to the fact that he’s created such a horrible monster for us.”