Jury acquits Sammons of South Point arson

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Carrying a plastic bag stuffed with some of his worldly goods and a pink jail release form as his ticket to freedom, Johnny Sammons Jr. walked across South Fifth Street and into the arms of his older sister, Tina Sammons.

Sammons became a free man around 12:30 Tuesday afternoon after spending almost three months in the Lawrence County Jail after he was indicted earlier this year on five felony charges of aggravated arson.

In a trial that took about a day and a half, Sammons took the stand in his own defense denying he started an early morning fire that destroyed a duplex at Kenova Road in South Point on Dec. 8, 2007. The fire left Sammons, his wife, Michelle, and their two children, as well as four who lived in the adjoining apartment, homeless.

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Sammons was facing three to 10 years on each of

the four 1st degree charges and two to eight years on the fifth charge of 2nd degree aggravated arson.

In closing arguments assistant prosecutor Brigham Anderson reiterated that the evidence proved Sammons’ guilt. Anderson cited that Sammons was fully clothed at the time of the fire that broke out around 1:30 in the morning; that his car was packed with personal belongings; and that an eyewitness account from Lathan Sipp, a next-door neighbor, had Sammons throwing something from a white bucket onto the fire.

“Lathan’s facts were consistent with the fire scene,” Anderson told the jury.

The prosecutor also attacked Sammons’ testimony including the defendant’s claim that his wife was responsible for the fire.

“Johnny Sammons told a completely different story to you all than he ever had before,” Anderson said. “He blames it on Michelle. Michelle is the one who started this fire. His story doesn’t add up. It’s completely opposite of any story told before.”

Defense attorney Mike Gleichauf countered by questioning the credibility of Sipp’s testimony.

“Lathan Sipps is a 16-year-old young man. He’s had his trouble and saw this mysterious white bucket,” Gleichauf said. “The only one person who saw it was Lathan. This raises reasonable doubt. He is the only person who saw this white bucket. … This mysterious white bucket. No one knows where it went. I’m not calling Lathan a liar. This (fire) was a traumatic event.”

To explain why the version Sammons told to fire investigators differed from his testimony Monday, Gleichauf said, “(Johnny) didn’t want to put (his wife) at the scene of the crime. He didn’t find out until later she did it. Johnny did not lie. It would have been easier if he did lie. I believe she was involved in this somehow.

“When you look at all the evidence, especially the white bucket, I believe you will find reasonable doubt,” the defense attorney said.

The jury took the case around 10 a.m. and were back in the courtroom by 11:45 a.m. with five not guilty verdicts.

After the victory, Gleichauf praised the efforts of the prosecutor.

“The state did a wonderful job,” he said. “The jury listened to the facts and they felt there was reasonable doubt. We are very happy justice prevailed.”

Later as Sammons was waiting in the bailiff’s office for his release, he thanked Gleichauf.

“He has put in a lot of time and effort,” he said. “I am glad the jury saw the truth.”

Prosecutor Anderson said he was disappointed with the jury’s verdict.

“We felt we had a substantial case. We thought we had substantial evidence against Mr. Sammons,” Anderson said. “He blamed the fire on his wife and the jury must have believed his testimony that his wife was somehow involved.

“There is not sufficient evidence at this time to prosecute the wife. We will continue to investigate the matter and if we find evidence sufficient to seek an indictment on others, we will.”