Rock Hill woman charged in apartment fire denied bond

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJuly 9, 2013 

— Suyatta Johnson, a mother of five who police say tried to set her boyfriend on fire, begged for grace in court Tuesday, apologizing to “all the families that lost everything” in a blaze that destroyed five Rock Hill apartment units last week and displaced 25 people.

But a city magistrate denied her bond and told her she could not call, text or visit the boyfriend police say was asleep when Johnson set fire to his comforter.

Police on Monday charged Johnson, 27, with second-degree arson and attempted murder nearly a week after she said she accidentally dropped a lit cigarette to the floor of her apartment after passing out from drinking.

The early-morning fire at Oak Hollow apartments tore into several homes July 2 and forced three people – including a pregnant woman and an 8-year-old girl – to jump from their second-floor apartments to safety.

Flames reached from Johnson’s first-floor apartment to the roof of Building 862.

The fire caused an estimated $600,000 in damage and left Johnson’s apartment filled with ashes and debris. Nine families left homeless were sent to live in hotels until permanent housing could be arranged.

Last week, Johnson told reporters she was in her apartment with her boyfriend of two years, Nesbitt Franklin, when the flames broke out. She said she had been drinking but fell unconscious and dropped a cigarette she had been smoking. She awoke when she felt heat coming from the bed.

She ran out and began knocking on neighbors’ doors to warn them about the fire. When firefighters and police officers arrived, they ushered residents out of their apartments.

After the fire, police questioned Johnson and other “preliminary” witnesses. Although released, she was still a “person of interest” to police and fire officials who jointly investigated the fire, police said.

Authorities last week found Franklin with serious burn injuries to his back and legs. He did not seek medical attention. Police issued warrants for Johnson’s arrest and, on Monday evening, found her at a Keiger Street apartment.

According to the arrest warrants, Johnson set fire to the bed comforter while Franklin was asleep under it. Franklin, who does not share any children with Johnson, “was woken up by the pain he experienced from the fire, and he found Johnson standing in the room looking at him.”

Charles Smith, who lives in Building 862 but across from where the flames did the most damage, was not surprised to learn the fire was intentionally set. His home wasn’t burned in the blaze, but he and three others who live with him evacuated when a neighbor warned them about the flames.

“No cigarette is going to” cause a fire resulting in so much damage, he said.

“I knew it,” said Tiffany June, a neighbor who last week said Johnson “set her man on fire.”

“I’m glad she got locked up,” June said. “She needs help.”

Sharon Omolu, who also lives in Building 862, said she was relieved to learn Johnson had been charged. She and her husband have lived at Oak Hollow for the past five years so they can save enough money to buy a house.

“I ain’t trying to die doing it,” said Omolu, who was awake when the fire started and had to spend the next night in a hotel because of heavy smoke damage. “It was terrible. I couldn’t breathe.”

About Johnson’s arrest, Omolu said, “Thank God. ... she could have killed us.”

Fire officials have not released an official cause of the fire.

Oak Hollow’s manager declined to comment.

Johnson has said she was released earlier this year from Piedmont Medical Center’s psychiatric ward and had been diagnosed with depression. She took several medications, including lithium and Prozac, all of which burned in the fire.

Police last month charged her with two counts of throwing bodily fluids on a law enforcement officer and public disorderly conduct after they say she pretended to be unconscious and then spit on officers when she refused to leave a woman’s apartment. Last week, she pleaded guilty to two counts of resisting arrest and received credit for time served, court records show.

During her Tuesday bond hearing, Johnson listened as Rock Hill Magistrate Jane Modla explained that she faced life in prison for the attempted murder charge, and a maximum 25-year sentence on the arson charge.

Modla questioned her about a 2010 unlawful burning conviction, in which Johnson was found guilty of setting fire to “one of my children’s father’s” clothes.

Johnson, a Wisconsin native who has lived in Rock Hill for seven years, stood without family members in court.

Rock Hill Police Detective Amy Jones said she did not believe Johnson had any close relatives in the area although there was some talk that she might try to visit her mother in Milwaukee.

“Under the circumstances, your history and your family situation, I won’t be giving you a bond,” Modla said, adding that Johnson will be jailed at the York County Detention Center until her trial. Modla also issued a no-contact order between her and Franklin, who did not appear in court.

Franklin declined to comment when reached by The Herald on Tuesday.

“Is somebody going to be able to see this ... like on the news, or what not?” Johnson asked Modla before a police officer escorted her back to a cell.

“It would appear so,” Modla replied.

Turning to reporters, Johnson said, “I just want to apologize to all the families that lost everything. Lord, forgive me. Keep everybody in prayer. Whoever sees this, please pray for me, too.”

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Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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