Hartford man sentenced for trying to torch the Shady Lawn Motel last year
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION - An unsuccessful attempt to burn down the Shady Lawn Motel a year-and-a-half ago will result in what is expected to be a probationary sentence for an inmate who was sleuthed out with the aid of DNA traces and fingerprints that were left behind.
Sean Runnals, 34, a long-time Hartford area resident struck a plea deal this week in which he pled “no contest” to attempted first-degree arson in exchange for a zero-to-seven year sentence which will run consecutively to several unrelated sentences for which he is currently incarcerated.
The arrangement means that if Runnals “maxes out” his current sentences this coming January he would immediately be eligible for furlough back into the community but, if he were run afoul of the law in the future, he could end up back behind bars.
“This is somewhat of an unusual sentence structure in that there’s this broad gap between the minimum and the maximum,” Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill explained to Judge Timothy Tomasi on Wednesday afternoon during the change-of-plea hearing. “It represents a significant vote of confidence in Mr. Runnals by the state, and also by Mr. Runnals himself, that he will toe the line for the next seven years because the consequences are up to seven years in prison if he doesn’t.”
“We hope he takes advantage of this opportunity and does better on furlough this time around than he did when this offense occurred,” Cahill concluded, referring to the fact that Runnals was living in a halfway house in Hartford Village in April of last year when two small fires broke out a few days apart in a crawl space underneath the Shady Lawn Motel.
Vermont State Police arson investigator Detective Sgt. Todd Ambroz collected a set of plastic shopping bags which were filled with bits of carpet and twigs and then soaked in gasoline that had been set afire and stuffed into a small crawlspace behind and underneath the motel which is normally used to access pipes and electrical utilities.
In both cases the bags were discovered during the pre-dawn hours after the burning materials had charred nearby wooden siding and caused a commotion due to the smoke but failed to ignite the structure of the building.
Initially police did not have any solid leads; however, by June of last year DNA traces found on a pair of white latex cleaning gloves in one of the bags and a fingerprint found on the other bag itself had both been matched to Runnals using databases that are available to Vermont’s state crime lab.
By that time Runnals had washed out of the furlough program for not complying with the house rules and refusing to clean his room so Detective Ambroz caught up with him for an interview at the Springfield jail.
Runnals told the detective that he had lived at the Shady Lawn eight years beforehand but said he hadn’t really been back there since, although he had walked past it every evening when he left his job as a dishwasher in downtown White River Junction and returned home to Hartford Village.
Detective Ambroz said that while Runnals initially denied any involvement in the fires, a supervisor at the halfway house told police she distinctly recalled a conversation last spring during which the Shady Lawn came up and Runnals allegedly remarked “You won’t have to worry about that place much longer because somebody is going to burn it to the ground.”
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