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Teen pleads guilty to burning Lancaster County Courthouse

A rage-filled teenager - who hoped to avoid prison in 2008 when he tried to burn down the historic Lancaster County Courthouse, then went on an armed crime spree, fueled by drugs and booze, that terrorized the county - was sentenced to 35 years in prison Friday.

Martavious Carter, 18, pleaded guilty at the Lancaster Municipal Center temporary court to an array of crimes that started with house burglaries, moved through the August 2008 torching of the courthouse and prosecutor's office and to armed robberies of several people.

It culminated with the September 2008 carjacking and kidnapping of a 70-year-old woman who was left in her car trunk. A fingerprint Carter left on the trunk led to his capture seven weeks after the fires.

Carter's violent actions between the courthouse fire and his arrest after the carjacking caused such panic in Lancaster that prosecutor Kevin Brackett described the atmosphere in the town that summer as an "armed camp," complete with a terrified public and a phalanx of state and local police patrolling the streets.

Lancaster Police Chief Hugh White called Carter's rampage of violence "the worst crime spree I've ever been exposed to." He told visiting Judge Michael Nettles of Florence that "people were afraid to walk to their cars. It changed the city. We had a town that was terrorized."

Carter apologized in court to the victims of his violent crimes and to the community that lost its sense of safety and its historic courthouse.

"I made the community look bad," Carter said, "and I am sorry to everybody I caused pain and hurt and worry in your life."

In sentencing Carter, Nettles said "we live in a time of terrorism," and Carter's actions in burning the courthouse and prosecutor's office were "a direct attack on our government system."

Brackett, the solicitor for York and Union counties, asked for a sentence of 45 years. He handled the case because Lancaster prosecutor Doug Barfield became a victim when Carter also burned down Barfield's office with two Molotov cocktails made from 40-ounce beer bottles.

Carter was on probation after he was declared a youthful offender for a burglary; he also had a conviction as a juvenile for stealing guns and jewelry from three homes in a two-week stretch in March 2008, Brackett said in court. Carter was arrested, confessed, then released on bond pending a trial.

A co-defendant of Carter's in the break-ins pleaded guilty and received 18 months in prison, and Carter's cases were coming up for trial in August 2008.

In an attempt to delay his trial, prosecutors said, Carter broke into the courthouse early on the morning of Aug. 4, 2008, and used paper indictments in court cases drenched with lighter fluid in an attempt to burn down the historic courthouse.

The courthouse was built in 1828 and designed by Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument and other historic buildings in South Carolina and around the country.

The courthouse, which is being repaired as a replacement goes up next to it along Lancaster's Main Street, has been a meeting place for Lancaster County residents since it was built. The fire destroyed the interior of the building and the roof. All courts have convened at the Municipal Center since the fire.

The courthouse fire prompted Barfield to publicly declare that court proceedings would continue despite the fire. Three days later, Barfield's office was fire-bombed.

"Carter found out justice would not be stopped by cowardly acts, so he burned down the solicitor's office," Brackett said.

Carter then turned to the armed robberies. He waved guns in victims' faces at a law office, twice at the post office and outside a credit union in what Brackett described as "carefully planned crimes."

Lancaster residents lived in fear during those times, police said, requesting protection for even mundane tasks that were outdoors or at night.

Carter, who confessed shortly after his arrest in September 2008 and has been in jail since, pleaded guilty to a total of 41 charges Friday that include weapons charges and possession of a homemade weapon made from a spoon, a "shank" that he used to threaten a guard while in jail after his arrest.

Harry Dest, the York County public defender brought in because the Lancaster public defender was also a victim when the courthouse burned, was Carter's lawyer.

Dest asked Nettles for a sentence of 20 years because Carter's actions were the work of a "desperate, irrational drug addict," who later understood and confessed that he had caused his victims and the community irreparable harm.

Carter's arrest, and the publicity surrounding it in September 2008, also racially divided the city and spawned "rumor and innuendo," said Dest and his investigator, former Lancaster Police Chief Benny Webb. Both Dest and Webb said Friday those rumors included that Carter, a black teenager, had been framed for the courthouse fire and other crimes.

Webb, a former State Law Enforcement Division agent, said Lancaster was "totally divided" by the unfounded rumors that Carter's race had anything to do with the arrests.

The divisions and mistrust must end, "because Martavious Carter accepts the responsibility of what he alone did to his community," Dest said in court. "It is time for this community to heal."

Dest described Carter's past: poverty, a father in prison, and the almost daily use of the depressant Xanax and the amphetamine Ecstasy -- all washed down at age 17 with straight vodka. Carter was on that chemical cocktail when he committed the array of crimes, Dest said.

The 70-year-old woman who was carjacked and kidnapped was so overcome with emotion in court Friday that she could not even speak to Judge Nettles when she was asked to describe her ordeal.

Another victim, longtime Lancaster lawyer Ned Gregory Jr., said the community has healed and justice was done Friday, although a feeling of safety was temporarily lost -- and history was lost forever.

Gregory's father's portrait was one of the irreplaceable items destroyed in the courthouse fire, and his secretary was robbed at gunpoint by Carter just days later. That secretary, Linda Webster, said in court she remains "terrified" because of the memory of Carter pointing a gun at her head and forcing her to crawl back to her office.