'No winners here:' Woman sentenced to 7 years for Arbor View fire
BILOXI -- Krystal Gonzalez mouthed, "I love you," to her fiance as deputies led her from Circuit Court on Thursday afternoon to begin serving a seven-year sentence for burning down a 20-unit building at Arbor View Apartments in D'Iberville.
Judge Chris Schmidt said he considered the severity of the crime -- first-degree arson -- in imposing a 20-year sentence, with 13 years suspended and five years on supervised release.
County prosecutors Beth McFadyen and Scott Lusk recommended the sentence after Gonzalez decided on the second day of her trial last week to plead guilty. Schmidt also ordered Gonzalez to pay $1.2 million in restitution to Arbor Properties, which owns the apartment complex, and to the families that lost most of their possessions in the fire.
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Schmidt said he realized Gonzalez did not intend to burn down a building when she set fire to her boyfriend's shirt in their third-floor apartment on the night of Fat Tuesday 2014, but the act itself was intentional.
"Had anyone been killed in the fire," Schmidt told Gonzalez, "you could have faced a death-penalty eligible crime."
Schmidt said he took into account the strong family support Gonzalez has, along with more than 50 letters of support from friends and family who described her as a hard-working and loving person. But Schmidt said the fire destroyed a multi-million dollar building and family homes, killed pets, damaged cars, uprooted lives, created panic as victims fled for their lives and likely caused lasting trauma.
"I would observe a certain amount of vanity and immaturity that led up to the fire," Schmidt said to Gonzalez, who turned 28 on sentencing day.
Her attorney, Michael Crosby, said Gonzalez has thought for the past two years that the fire was an accident. She had been drinking all day and has only a hazy memory of the evening. When she heard witnesses testify at trial, and considered the weight of the evidence, Crosby said, she realized she must be guilty. He said she wanted to take responsibility for her actions.
Before the sentence was imposed, she stood tearfully in front of the judge. She had to compose herself before she could speak.
"I can't believe I'm standing here," Gonzalez said. " ... I'm deeply sorry for the families that lost everything two years ago. I would never intentionally hurt anybody."
Her family pleaded with the judge for mercy, not only for Gonzalez but for the one-year-old daughter she will leave behind while in jail. Gonzalez has never left the baby for more than an hour or so at a time, said her mother, Anna Gonzalez.
The Gonzalez family, including Krystal Gonzalez's father and three younger sisters, lives in California. Krystal Gonzalez worked three jobs on the Coast, sending her family money after her father, a land surveyor, was laid off during the recession.
Anna Gonzalez was hoping her daughter could turn herself in for jail after she had gone home and gotten her daughter settled with family members. Her fiance, Kyle Fountain, said he might have to quit his job to take care of the baby. Ironically, Fountain is a firefighter, a job he said he loves.
Krystal Gonzalez's victims were in the courtroom, too, including women employed by Arbor View Properties who also attended the trial.
One former Arbor View resident, Phillip Harding, spoke before Schmidt sentenced Gonzalez.
He said, in part: "It's devastating when a hurricane, tornado, flood or other natural event destroys lives and property, but this -- this was caused by the defendant. It was caused by her irresponsible actions alone and due solely to her fit of anger.
"Your honor, justice demands an accounting. I ask that you hold the defendant fully accountable for the acts she has committed, and I ask that you consider the entirety of the destruction she has caused."
And then came the sentence. Schmidt at one point said, "Nobody's going to win."
D'Iberville Police Chief Wayne Payne, who sat alone near the front of the courtroom, said after court adjourned: "I agree with the judge. There's no winners here. Today, justice was done."