Former Derry woman sentenced for setting three fires
Cheryl Wheaton, 57, of Salem, Mass., pleaded guilty to three counts of arson in superior court, claiming she set the blazes so that police and neighbors would pay attention to other crimes - including a gun incident - that happened in the building.
Wheaton claimed on Wednesday she was abusing alcohol and suffering from bipolar disorder at the time.
The fires happened at the Hillside Estates Condominiums in Derry in July, August and October of 2011.
Judge N. William Delker said he could not ignore that Wheaton set fires during three separate occasions.
"You placed a lot of people in danger of their lives and property," Delker said. "You caused extreme havoc in this case."
Defense lawyer William Gilmore argued that his client was living in a "high crime area" and continued to be neighbors with a man who pleaded guilty to assaulting her. Gilmore described Wheaton's acts as a way to draw attention - and hopefully a police presence - to her building.
"These are fires that were very unsophisticated in their preparation," Gilmore said. "All three fires were actually extinguished prior to the fire department's arrival."
He said after the fires Wheaton was diagnosed as bipolar and now wanted to take responsibility for her actions.
Assistant County Attorney Brad Bolton argued for a three- to six-year prison sentence, saying the assault report arose out of an argument over gardening behind the condominium building.
The neighbor who assaulted Wheaton pleaded guilty in that case, but Wheaton began changing her details of her account while being re-interviewed by police, Bolton said.
Derry police also investigated an incident of a gun being fired at the complex in 2010.
"Given all that, that's not a rationale for setting fires," Bolton said. "People were on edge there for quite a while."
Members of the condominium association even hired their own private security detail in the wake of the blazes, according to Bolton.
Delker said it's unlikely that Wheaton, a grandmother of seven, would re-offend once she is released from prison.
But the judge concluded that a prison term was necessary to show others that such behavior would not be tolerated by the criminal justice system.
"One of the reasons you apparently felt that you needed to resort to this was because you thought criminal justice system did not effectively deal with these issues," he said.
Wheaton also received a pair of suspended sentences, both five to 10 years each, that will remain suspended over the next decade so long as she remains on good behavior.