The Wisconsin State Journal
A man who was part of a group that tried to burn two buildings on East Washington Avenue last summer during a protest over a man’s shooting by Kenosha police pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempted arson and was sentenced to five years in prison.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson called the acts committed by Willie T. Johnson “appalling and dangerous” and said it was fortunate neither fire took root and endangered lives.
Johnson, 46, and his girlfriend, Anessa Fierro, 28, were charged about a year ago with attempted arson for trying to set fires on Aug. 25, 2020, at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Chalmers Jewelers.
The fires were set during protests over the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake, who was paralyzed after he was shot seven times by an officer last August. Blake has recently said he hopes to walk again.
Fierro, who has also signed a plea agreement with prosecutors, is set for a plea and sentencing hearing on Oct. 19, also before Peterson.
In court Wednesday, Johnson apologized to Chalmers and WMC and said he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. He said his actions do not represent the man he normally is and said he is aware of “the reality that my actions were counterproductive” to the message being sent by the protests last summer over police violence against people of color.
Peterson allowed Johnson to report to prison on Oct. 25. Depending on the crime and defendant, federal prison sentences are often not served forthwith, unlike state court sentences.
In a sentencing memorandum filed this week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chad Elgersma asked Peterson to sentence Johnson to seven years in prison.
“Arson is never a part of peaceful protest,” Elgersma wrote. “It is a violent crime. The defendants’ actions damaged buildings and, unquestionably, put peoples’ lives at risk.”
Though he noted that Johnson has a limited criminal history, with all of his convictions from the 1990s, that changed on Aug. 25, 2020, when Johnson, “apparently hellbent on causing destruction, carried a gasoline container and a baseball bat through the streets of Madison before he tried to burn down not one, but two different buildings,” Elgersma wrote.
In his own sentencing memorandum, Johnson’s attorney, Nathan Otis, wrote that while Johnson’s actions were “destructive and reckless” and “reprehensible, it was also atypical. It stands in stark contrast to how he has conducted himself over the past 25 years.”
Otis asked for a five-year sentence, asking Peterson to consider making the sentence on par with recent arson-related sentences in other federal courts, particularly in Minnesota, where buildings that included a police precinct were burned during protests over the police shooting death of George Floyd.
Comparisons were also drawn in court to Marquon Clark, convicted of attempting to set fire to the City-County Building in Madison on June 24, 2020, who received a seven-year sentence from Peterson in June.
By giving Johnson the mandatory minimum of five years, Peterson said he did not intend to diminish the seriousness of Johnson’s arson attempts, calling them “a really terrible crime.” But he said Clark had a more serious and recent criminal history than Johnson.
Otis wrote in his memorandum that as protests erupted over Blake’s shooting, Johnson, under the influence of alcohol and Ecstasy, was “overcome with anger, excitement and the sense of anonymity afforded him by the crowd. Within this context, Willie behaved in a way that he never has before or since.”
After seeing a trash bin set ablaze elsewhere Downtown, Otis wrote, Johnson and Fierro retrieved a canister of gasoline from a work van she had borrowed from her father and headed down East Washington Avenue with other protesters. Johnson was also armed with a bat.
The group broke windows at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and Fierro poured gasoline inside, which Johnson ignited. The same group crossed East Washington to Chalmers Jewelers, again broke the windows and Fierro again poured in some gasoline. Johnson and Fierro tried unsuccessfully to ignite it with lighters.
“The entire incident lasted less than 15 minutes,” Otis wrote. “But in those 15 minutes Willie made the worst decisions of his life. His actions were senseless and dangerous. But this was not representative of who he is or how he normally conducts himself. It was an aberration.”
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