A Rock Hill woman who set her boyfriend on fire inside a crammed apartment building said in court Tuesday, “I never intended to kill him.” But a judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison after the 3 a.m. fire she intentionally set displaced more than 20 people – and could have been more tragic.
“Only by the grace of God nobody was killed,” Circuit Court Judge Frank Addy said in handing down the sentence.
Fire officials and police had asked for a 15-year prison sentence, saying that Suyatta Johnson, 28, had a “violent streak” that put the lives of 12 families at Oak Hollow Apartments at risk when Johnson set the fire in the wee hours of July 2, 2013. Days after the fire, Johnson told police she set it, and that she stood there over her boyfriend as he woke up on fire. She did it, Johnson said, “Just to show him I ain’t playing no games.”
Johnson pleaded guilty to assault and battery and arson. She will have to undergo mental health counseling while in prison and on probation. In handing down the sentence, Addy, of Greenwood, described the scene of the fire as a “huge potential for the loss of human life.”
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Police and fire officials described a scene that could have ended with mass casualties or deaths. “People were screaming for help,” said Rock Hill Police Detective Amy Jones.
Rock Hill Fire Department Capt. Karen Kane described an inferno that required most of the city’s fire trucks and firefighters. A pregnant woman, her boyfriend, and an 8-year-old girl had to leap from the second floor balcony to safety, Kane said. Four Rock Hill Police officers pulled previously sleeping people out of the burning building.
“We can’t ignore the very dangerous position that she put all those people in,” prosecutor Misti Shelton said. “She (Johnson) had absolutely no regard for human life in that building.”
The fire, which destroyed the building, has cost more than $700,000 in construction costs and lost rent.
In court Tuesday, Johnson talked about her boyfriend as the reason for the fire. “He was leaving me,” she said.
“Things just kinds got outta hand,” Johnson stated in court, but she never meant to harm her boyfriend or the others in the apartment building. More, Johnson did help wake up neighbors.
She initially lied about the fire to police, claiming she accidentally dropped a cigarette. But Johnson later claimed that she set the comforter, not the boyfriend under the comforter, on fire.
The boyfriend ran out of the burning building after he woke up with his legs and back on fire. The boyfriend, who was not seriously injured, did not attend court Tuesday and had tried to get prosecutors to drop the charges, but the crime was too severe for any dismissal. Prosecutors agreed to drop an attempted murder charge down to assault and battery.
Johnson, a foster child whose parents were drug addicts, had been released from jail for spitting on police just six days before the fire. Weeks before the fire, she had tried to commit suicide and had been hospitalized for psychiatric care, said Mindi Lipinski, Johnson’s court-appointed public defender. Johnson and her boyfriend were about to be evicted and the boyfriend was moving on, Lipinksi said.
Lipinski asked for a sentence of five years plus counseling and probation.
“I think she meant to send him a message,” Lipinski said of Johnson setting the fire. “She didn’t want to hurt him.”
Johnson’s life had spiraled out of control before the fire, Lipinski said. Johnson’s five children were taken away by social services workers, and in 2010 Johnson had set the clothing of another boyfriend on fire.
The previous boyfriend was not wearing the clothes when Johnson set them on fire, Lipinski added. Yet Addy, the judge, made it clear that the previous fire and violent incidents coupled with Johnson’s mental problems gave him concern that her release would be a threat to public safety. Addy ordered that Johnson receive treatment while in prison “so this never happens again.”