Crime

‘Fire cult’ arson case closes with plea bargain

The final defendant in a ‘fire cult’ arson case accepted a plea deal Monday that keeps her out of prison. The charred remains of a house were visible Jan. 29, 2015, on Third Street in Clermont Harbor. Investigators say suspects in a string of arsons burned the house down on Sept. 14, 2014.
The final defendant in a ‘fire cult’ arson case accepted a plea deal Monday that keeps her out of prison. The charred remains of a house were visible Jan. 29, 2015, on Third Street in Clermont Harbor. Investigators say suspects in a string of arsons burned the house down on Sept. 14, 2014. wmuller@sunherald.com File

A former firefighter accused in a string of arsons does not have to serve jail time after she accepted a plea bargain that dismissed five of seven charges against her and negotiated a sentence of house arrest and probation.

Marie Gill, 29, of Gulfport, pleaded guilty to two counts of arson as part of the deal offered by the District Attorney’s Office in Hancock County. Her initial sentence was for 20 years with 17 suspended, leaving three years to serve followed by five years of post-release supervision.

Assistant District Attorney Chris Daniel said Gill’s attorney, Fred Luck, successfully argued the three years be served on house arrest. If she successfully completes the house-arrest program, Gill’s post-release supervision will be reduced to five years of non-reporting probation.

She was one of six firefighters arrested about a year ago in the setting of six fires from September 2014 through January 2015. At the time of the arrests, Hancock County sheriff’s Investigator A.J. Gambino said the firefighters were part of “some sort of fire club or fire cult.”

Gill maintained she was never the ringleader of any kind of fire cult, as investigators alleged, and said the plea bargain and her sentencing affirms her assertion.

The other five firefighters in the case were Crystal Lynn Mooneyhan, 28; Michael Spencer Smith, 26; Korri-Don Jones, 29; Leslie Cheramie, 41; and Orenthial “O.J.” Smith, 34.

Five of the fires burned rural woods and marshland around the Lakeshore, Clermont Harbor and Logtown communities, and a sixth burned an abandoned house just west of Buccaneer State Park.

Investigators with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Marshal’s Office said the firefighters would light the fires and respond to them to put them out.

Jones, Cheramie and O.J. Smith were not indicted on felony charges. Jones’ case was sent to a lower court, where he was convicted on two misdemeanor counts of arson, fined and banned from working as a firefighter for 10 years. He was working for the West Hancock Volunteer Fire Department. The statuses of the other cases weren’t clear.

Gill was the final defendant to be convicted in the “fire cult” case.

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