BILOXI -- As the weight of testimony sank in, Krystal Gonzalez realized she must have intentionally set a fire that burned down a 20-unit apartment building in a D'Iberville complex, endangering the lives of residents and killing some of their pets.
After a lunch break in her trial Wednesday, Gonzalez dramatically reversed course and pleaded guilty to first-degree arson before Circuit Judge Chris Schmidt. He plans to sentence her at 1:30 p.m. March 24, her 28th birthday.
She faces five to 20 years in prison. The District Attorney's Office is likely to recommend less than the maximum sentence because of her plea.
Schmidt does not have to follow that recommendation. He admonished Gonzalez to show up for sentencing.
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"Ms. Gonzalez," he said, "you understand that the next 20 years of your life are in my hands."
During the trial, nobody disputed Gonzalez started the fire the night of Fat Tuesday 2014.
Her attorney, Michael Crosby of Gulfport, contended during the trial that it was an accident. Her live-in boyfriend, Adam Dubuisson, was prepared to testify he watched Gonzalez set the fire.
Schmidt asked her if she was admitting she maliciously caused the fire. "Yes, sir," she softly said.
"Tell me what happened," the judge said.
Gonzalez could not respond, so Crosby did. He said his client was so drunk her recollection of events is hazy. She had heard the evidence, though, Crosby said, and was forced to admit she intentionally started the fire, which is proof of her guilt. She had no thought for what the consequences would be for her or the Arbor View residents who lost their possessions and barely escaped with their lives.
Testimony established Gonzalez and Dubuisson had been drinking all day at the Mardi Gras parade in Biloxi. They went their separate ways after a fight. Gonzalez returned to their apartment after 8 p.m. and was fighting over the telephone with Dubuisson, who was refusing to come home.
She then placed a video call from her computer, she now admits, and turned the computer around so Dubuisson could watch as she took a long lighter and set a shirt ablaze in his closet.
Several Arbor View residents sat on the prosecution's side of the courtroom after they testified, as did eight employees of Arbor Properties, which owns the complex.
There was witness Velma Merrithey, who was 80 the night of the fire. Her great-grandsons, ages 3 and 5, were staying with her.
She testified she heard shouting about 9 p.m. in the second-floor apartment above her, earlier identified as the home of Gonzalez and Dubuisson.
Then Merrithey heard a popping sound and smelled smoke. She thought it was a late-night barbecue because of the holiday. She was reading while her great-grandsons slept.
A man knocked at her door. "This guy said, 'Hurry, get out. There's fire.' I didn't try to wake either of them up," she said. "I just dragged them down the hallway. They were hysterical, yelling and screaming."
She said two men picked up the boys and ran with them across the driveway.
She turned to look at the building. "I could see smoke billowing up," she said, "and fire just shot up out of the smoke.
"I could see this big ball of fire, then suddenly everything dropped into my apartment and I knew it was over."
Five other residents also testified about their escapes, most with pets. One resident testified pets had died in the building. At that point, Crosby noticed one juror crying and another sniffling. He said several were breathing heavily. He knew the case was not going well for his client.
The witnesses said they never saw Gonzalez outside the apartment complex as the fire raged. One witness, Sharon Webb, said she did see Gonzalez later that night at the D'Iberville Civic Center, where apartment residents went for Red Cross assistance. Webb said she sat next to Gonzalez, who was wearing a hoodie. Gonzalez said she was OK, did not live in the apartments and was there visiting a friend.
Dubuisson's testimony was coming up, possibly Thursday.
Gonzalez consulted her family over the lunch break, then entered her plea before the jury returned to the courtroom.
Gonzalez left the courthouse with her mother and 10 or 11 other family members, including her 1-year-old toddler. She is engaged now. She and her daughter live in Ocean Springs with her fiancé.
After the judge dismissed the jury, Crosby told the Sun Herald: "She was not correct on the way she wanted to remember it. We sometimes see ourselves the way we want to -- not the way we really are."