CLEARFIELD – A Clearfield man accused of setting his apartment on fire will be spending up to 18 years in state prison.
Heath Oliver Austin, 41, pleaded guilty to five counts of arson with danger of death or bodily injury before Judge Fredric J. Ammerman on Tuesday morning.
After hearing from the victim, Ammerman sentenced Austin to 22 months to 18 years in state prison for each count, with the sentences running concurrent with each other.
He must pay more than $77,000 in restitution to the victims and their insurance companies.
When the victim addressed the court, she stated that Austin, who was renting the apartment, “spent a lot of time planning this.”
She explained that he had failed to pay his rent in February and was told to move. After he became very upset, an agreement was made for him spreading out his payments so he could stay in the residence.
Sometime in March, he stopped the automatic payments coming from his bank account and on April 3, a fire broke out. Luckily the other residents got out and the fire did not spread due to the insulation in the building, she said. However, there was smoke damage.
If they had not heard a smoke detector, the couple who lived above him could have died, she stated.
When Austin’s apartment was checked, it was obvious that he had moved his things out of the residence before the fire. He filed an insurance claim of his own for $35,000, she stated.
She referred to Austin as “a dangerous man” and noted that he had been involved with other fires.
“Twenty-two months is a light sentence for what he did,” she told the judge.
District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr. stated that he had explained the reason for the 22-month minimum sentence to the victims previously.
Austin does not have much of a previous record and this sentence was based on sentencing guidelines, he said.
He mentioned he also advised them that Austin will probably do most of his maximum sentence, which was up to the judge. But, he said if they wanted to take the case to trial, he would do that.
“This is a significant case,” Ammerman said and then asked Shaw to speak to the victims again.
When they returned to the courtroom, the victim asked the judge to give Austin the largest maximum sentence possible.
Curtis Irwin, who was acting as stand-by counsel for Austin, said he felt there were some mental health issues involved in this case, but he added that he saw no indication that Austin did not understand the plea agreement.
Someone would “have to have a “few screws loose” to do something like this, Ammerman noted.
Through a sign language interpreter because Austin is deaf, he said he was sorry that he caused the fire and regrets it.
According to the affidavit of probable cause, firefighters responding to the fire were told a deaf man lived in the apartment and was still inside. They forced entry into the locked residence but found no one there.
A state police fire marshal determined the fire was arson and it started when someone set fire to clothing in a laundry basket in Austin’s apartment.
Austin admitted to investigators that he started the fire because he was having financial problems.