MEDINA — Prosecutors said a woman swimming in debt set her Wadsworth home on fire in October 2012 so she could collect $290,000 in insurance money.
“This is one of those times where crime does pay,” Medina County Assistant Prosecutor Michael McNamara told a jury.
Opening statements and witness testimony began Tuesday in the trial of Jill Tucker, 59, who’s charged with aggravated arson. If convicted, she could face up to 11 years in prison and would have to register as an arsonist yearly for the rest of her life.
McNamara said Tucker was tens of thousands of dollars in debt and was spending more money than she took in by a couple hundred dollars every month. He said she took out a loan and bought a home in Creston prior to the fire.
It took firefighters from four departments five hours to get the blaze under control and allow investigators into Tucker’s house at 168 S. Pardee St.
McNamara said the fire was suspicious because it spread so quickly and because at least two independent investigators found what they suspected were two points of origin — one on the ground floor and another on the second floor on the opposite side of the home.
Prosecutors said investigators suspected accelerants like gasoline were used, but no evidence could be found. Police dogs reacted to the smell of accelerants.
“That’s not uncommon, since accelerants burn away,” McNamara said. “But dogs have more sensitive noses than ours.”
Tucker’s defense attorney, Thomas Morris, said his client didn’t set the fire because she lost everything she owned in the blaze — including antiques, heirlooms and three cats.
“It was the worst day of her life,” Morris told the jury. “Everything she had, she lost in that fire.”
Morris said Tucker lit a candle to combat an odor left by skunks in her neighborhood, and then fell asleep nearby while watching television.
“When she woke up, she looked over and saw a tray on fire, said ‘What do I do,’ and sprung into action,” he said.
Morris said Tucker took the tray outside, but other furniture had caught fire. She called 911 immediately and police and the Fire Department arrived within minutes.
Morris argued that although the prosecutors’ expert witnesses would testify that there were two origins for the fire, it was possible the fire spread naturally.
“You’ll have no one coming in today saying they saw Jill Tucker setting accelerants or lighting a fire,” Morris said. “You’ll have people coming in here and saying it looks like there were two independent fires, so it must be arson.”
Morris said the investigators were biased.
“Just because they’re experts does not mean you have to believe them,” Morris told the jury. “What you’re going to see is they jumped to conclusions, and when you jump to conclusions, you can make mistakes.”
The trial continues 9 a.m. today. Common Pleas Judge Christopher J. Collier said he expects the trial to last several days.