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Man sentenced to 8 years for Fort Collins arson

9:34 PM, Dec 12, 2013   |    comments
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FORT COLLINS - Ben Gilmore, 31, was sentenced to eight years in connection with the October 2011 fire that caused more than $10 million in damage to the under-construction Mason Street Flats and the neighboring Penny Flats building.

The fire threatened 21 people's lives, including many who were sleeping in Penny Flats, as well as firefighters and police who responded, prosecutors have said.

THE SENTENCING

The sentencing began at 1:30 p.m. in Larimer County Justice Center, and many activists showed up in support of Gilmore. The courtroom was quickly a standing-room only.

"Please have a seat if you can," District Judge Devin Odell said to the courtroom as the sentencing began.

Odell warned those attending the sentencing that any bad behavior would cause them to be removed immediately. Many people had to sit in the aisles as the courtroom was packed.

Gilmore's wife pleaded with the court saying "I'm asking you for leniency. I'm asking you please don't take Benjamin from our family."

"Today is the day that justice is finally served," the prosecuting attorney countered.

One of the victims of the fire said they could smell the fire seven miles away. Another victim said her wedding gown and wedding photos were destroyed in the blaze.

Gilmore testified during his sentencing, sobbing at times. Many people in the courtroom were red-eyed and sniffling.

The judge sentenced Gilmore to eight years in prison for arson, criminal mischief, and burglary in connection with the 2011 Old Town Fort Collins fire. Those sentences will be served concurrently.

Gilmore faced anywhere from probation to 30 years in prison after jurors convicted him on about half the charges filed against him. He was acquitted of counts of attempted murder and additional counts of arson and criminal mischief.

THE PROTEST

Local activists disputed Gilmore's conviction on charges of arson, criminal mischief and burglary, and their "Burning the Beekeeper" documentary has been screened several times the past week at the Lyric Cinema Cafe in Fort Collins.

Filmmakers Stacy Lynne and Lawrence Johnston conducted their own investigation and claim evidence pointed to a transient man reported as having told people he set the fire. They've tried to get Smith to intervene.

"They refuse to recognize the American judicial process. In that process, defendants have the rights to appeal through the courts. They don't go to an executive officer to summarily overturn the jury," according to Smith's post on Facebook on Thursday morning. 

"Sometimes juries make mistakes, sometimes courts make mistakes," Odell said on Thursday. "The system's not perfect."

Odell insisted the fact that the system is not perfect did not change his duty.

To counter protesters' presence, the prosecution's advisory witness, Det. Mike Avrech, sent an email encouraging police and firefighters to take up space in the courtroom.

"There has been a recent local documentary and other propaganda displayed around town professing Gilmore's innocence. There is strong anticipation that there will be a large crowd of his supporters at the hearing. As such, we would like to fill as many seats with FCPD and PFA personnel as possible," according to the email.

Fort Collins Police Chief John Hutto told the Coloradoan its routine for police to be represented in court during high-profile sentencing hearings. But he said the wording of the message was "unfortunate" and "just didn't feel right. I'm not happy about it."

Evidence against Gilmore included his Rolex watch, which was found in two pieces among the debris near scaffolding inside the building: The bezel was on the second floor, where the fire started; the rest of the watch was on the ground floor.

Gilmore's hands had burns, and photos and video prosecutors used as evidence showed he wasn't wearing bandages and gloves until after the fire.

The defense argued the watch could have been stolen, and the burns were from Gilmore practicing fire-spinning (performance art where flaming balls are spun on chains) to surprise his wife. Gilmore, who only has one hand, couldn't have sneaked up the scaffolding in the dark with a fuel can, the defense argued.

(Copyright © 2013 Fort Collins Coloradoan, All Rights Reserved)

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