Guilty plea expected in Derry arson case
BRENTWOOD - A former Derry woman who told police she was sleepwalking when she set three fires inside her condominium complex has agreed to plead guilty instead of taking her case to trial, according to court records.
Cheryl Wheaton, 57, formerly of 4 Pembroke Drive, struck an agreement with county prosecutors just before she was due to appear for a hearing in Rockingham County Superior Court on Friday. Terms of the deal have not yet been disclosed, but court papers indicate the prosecutor and the defense will argue about Wheaton's potential sentence at a March 20 hearing. The three arson charges each carry a potential 7½- to 15-year prison term. The fires happened in July, August and October of 2011.
Wheaton initially denied any involvement with the three blazes until she started talking about her sleepwalking, police said. She also mentioned to police her desire to get certain people out of her building after a fight by neighbors resulted in someone firing off a gun inside the condominium building, according to a police affidavit.
Wheaton said during a police interview she took an "extra" dose of sleeping pills before setting one of the blazes and that "it was always on her mind to get certain people from the building to leave," Derry police Detective Scott Tompkins said in a sworn affidavit.
Derry police had investigated the gun incident on April 27, 2011 - three months before the first fire was set. Witnesses told police there was a confrontation between three people living in the building and two people who arrived in a white Ford Explorer. Police believe one shot was fired during the incident and the bullet got lodged in a lobby wall. Wheaton told police she wanted the neighbor to be suspected of the fires and get kicked out of the complex.
"One of these thoughts was that what if there was a fire and they (her neighbors) were home," then they would be blamed for the arsons, according to Thompkins.
Derry Fire Inspector Philip LaValley concluded that at least two of the blazes were set in a similar fashion, according to the affidavit. On the night of July 21 at 11:32 p.m., fire investigators found that someone stuffed a flier from a Big Lots store under a door to one of the empty units and then lit it on fire. Wheaton lived in the unit next door.
"A small section on the bottom of the door had been burnt as well as the surrounding ground area," Thompkins said in the affidavit.
Paper towels and an accelerant were used to set another fire on Oct. 30.
Investigators found pieces of paper had been ignited in several places around a first-floor laundry room sometime before police and fire crews responded at 12:38 a.m.
After that fire, police recovered samples of burnt paper towels and a partially burnt can of Kano Aero Kroil, an industrial lubricant rarely distributed in New Hampshire, the affidavit says. Wheaton's husband, who was interviewed by police, acknowledged having a can of the lubricant but could not find it when police asked him to locate it, the affidavit says.