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Deaf homeless man pleads guilty to church fire

August 2, 2007

25-year-old entered building to make himself dinner

By Liesel Nowak  / lnowak@dailyprogress.com | 978-7274

December 20, 2006

A deaf homeless man who broke into a Charlottesville church to cook himself dinner has pleaded guilty to accidentally torching the church.

City prosecutors say Jason Scott Santos did not intend to burn the Charlottesville Church of Christ on May 4 when he broke in to find food. Now, the 25-year-old faces up to 20 years in prison for burning the building.

After an unsuccessful attempt at having the charge against him dismissed, Santos decided to plead guilty in Charlottesville Circuit Court.

Santos’ lawyer, Mike Hallahan, had said his client “broke and entered with the intent to eat” and that the indictment against him – breaking and entering with the intent to commit burglary – should be dismissed.

Judge Edward L. Hogshire ruled the indictment should stand.

Santos agreed to plead guilty to the breaking and entering as well as petty larceny and the negligent burning of the church.

“We don’t believe that he had the intention to burn anything down,” said Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Claude Worrell.

According to the prosecutor, Santos broke through one of the windows of the church at 990 5th St. because he hadn’t eaten in a couple of days and was looking for food.

Santos went into the refrigerator then turned on the stove to cook hamburgers, Worrell said. He placed a dishtowel near the stove then left the kitchen to find a television.

Upstairs in the church’s audio-visual room, Worrell said, Santos found only a television monitor and made his way back to the kitchen where the fire had already started.

Santos left the church, Worrell said, went across the street and watched the fire for a while before going to the University of Virginia Medical Center to be treated for a cut on his arm, sustained when he broke into the church.

Police tracked Santos down at the hospital, where they questioned him. They learned that he had traveled to Charlottesville from Roanoke and that he was using crack, Worrell said.

The church sustained $1.5 million in damages, $1.2 million of which will be covered by insurance.

The congregation has been worshipping in its former church on Commerce Street NW while the damaged church is being rebuilt.

According to Bishop Rufus Hayes, construction could be completed by mid-April.

“It’s coming along, it’s coming back,” he said.

As for Santos, Hayes said the case is in the hands of prosecutors, but he doesn’t think a long penitentiary sentence would help him.

“I feel sorry for the young man. As a clergyman, my business is to try to convert,” Hayes said.

Hogshire denied Santos’ new request for bond. He is being held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

He is scheduled for sentencing in March.