Boys play with lighters and face arson charges, parents feel burned

Carol Chambers, the district attorney for Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, has developed a reputation for being hell on career felons. She's sought the death penalty in more cases than any other DA in the state and filed habitual-criminal charges at a rate four times that of her predecessor.

And she can also be an eleven-year-old boy's worst nightmare.

When it comes to young miscreants messing around with fire, nobody takes a harder line than the prosecutors in Chambers's office. So hard, in fact, that two recent juvenile cases — both involving first-time offenders and apparently accidental fires — have led to charges of felony arson against the young culprits, and remarkably similar complaints of overkill.

In January, Westword first reported on the strange case of Jacob Christenson, who lit a piece of paper on fire last summer while goofing off in his neighborhood in Parker. According to Jacob, an older boy tossed the paper into dry shrubbery, which grew into a fire that spread to the exterior wall of a neighbor's townhouse, ultimately causing more than $195,000 in damages — and leaving Jacob and his companion facing second-degree arson charges.

Given the age of the perps and the severity of the charge, which requires that the offender "knowingly" caused the damage, the story quickly became fodder for talk radio and television reports. "I don't think you can say that Jacob set out with the intention to burn a house down," public defender Dariel Weaver said.

Chambers defended her team's handling of the case, pointing out that a juvenile "adjudication," which she likened to a civil process, is somewhat different from an adult criminal conviction — even though it can result in a kid being put in a juvenile facility for months or years. But concerns about her office's hardball policy were also raised in connection with another juvenile arson prosecution last fall. In that case, the offender's parents also happen to be the victims of the fire, but the couple says prosecutors didn't treat them that way — and refused to consider evidence they obtained showing that their son wasn't the serial pyromaniac that the DA's office made him out to be.

Val and Maria Haddon believe they do a good job of supervising their four children. When their eleven-year-old son had a friend sleeping over last October, they confiscated a lighter that the guest had brought with him. But they didn't know about a second lighter. After his friend left, their son found it by his backpack. He flicked it on and waved it around in his closet "to watch the blue flame," he said later.

Then he went to get a snack. When he came back, his bedroom was on fire. After failing to douse the flames with pitchers of water, he called 911 and his mother, who was a few doors down the street. By the time the Aurora Fire Department defeated the blaze, it had caused close to $100,000 in damages.

Maria Haddon says her son told the fire and police officers about playing with the lighter. But she didn't get to hear the entire conversation. Overcome by smoke, she was taken by a paramedic up the street for fresher air. "That was my mistake," she says now. "I should have stayed with my son or grabbed him and taken him with me. My son was scared to death, and I left him by himself."

A neighbor who was on scene says that a fire investigator repeatedly questioned Maria's son, accusing him of deliberately setting clothes on fire in the closet. Another, more aggressive investigator then began to insist that they'd met a few months before, when the investigator was probing a brush fire in the neighborhood. Despite the boy's denials that he'd been involved in another fire or ever talked to the man, the investigator kept after him, the neighbor says.

"That investigator told everyone my son was the one who started the brush fire," Maria says.

The boy was arrested that day and spent two nights in a juvenile facility. He appeared in court in shackles — and, after his release, was required to submit to random urinalysis, much to his family's bafflement. When the Haddons learned that their son was being charged with second-degree arson, a felony, their attorney sought to have the charge dismissed and the boy placed in a diversion program. Prosecutor Andrew Steers "looked at us as if we were crazy," Maria recalls. "He insisted that my son had done this before."

Steers said he'd be willing to reconsider the matter if the Haddons could prove their son didn't start the brush fire. The parents pulled the official report and saw that the description of the suspect, a red-haired kid seen fleeing the scene, didn't resemble their son at all. And the date of the fire happened to be the same day that their son was at a Boy Scout camp in Golden, on the other side of the metro area. The Haddons quickly got notarized statements from the boy's troop leader and other witnesses.

But even the documents failed to make their son's inquisitors relent. "They just had no interest in that information," says the boy's attorney, Kevin Chambers (no relation to the district attorney). "What I was told was that they did not believe the information. To me, that means they think we made it up, which we did not do."

Even though the Haddons had no interest in seeing their son prosecuted, Kevin Chambers says Steers didn't regard them as the true victims of the case. "He refused to talk to them," the defense attorney says. "He said the insurance company was the victim, not them. It was ridiculous."

A request for a response from Steers was denied. Patryce Engel, chief deputy in charge of juvenile prosecutions, said that she could not discuss details of the case or the parents' allegations because of the confidential nature of juvenile proceedings. In an e-mail response, she added this: "Previous conduct by anyone, whether a juvenile or an adult, is never considered in filing of charges."

District Attorney Chambers says her team is only seeking to do what's best for the juvenile and the community. "The focus of juvenile prosecutors and the courts will always be on assessment, what is helpful for the child and the child's family so that they do not return to the juvenile or criminal justice systems in the future," she wrote in an e-mail to Westword.

Maria Haddon doesn't think her son's situation got a fair assessment at all. "They just made my son out to be a monster," she says. "What upsets me more than anything is that I showed them the proof that he wasn't involved in the other fire — and they just didn't believe me. Aren't they supposed to deal with the facts?" Unwilling to face the expense and possible consequences of a trial, the Haddons ultimately agreed to let their son plead guilty to arson, resulting in a year of probation and a deferred sentence; if the boy doesn't get in more trouble before his probation ends, his record will be expunged. It's not a deal he would urge on every client, Kevin Chambers says, but he doesn't expect this one to get in further trouble.

Jacob Christenson's case had a different resolution. Blame it on the public outcry or perhaps the family's willingness to go to trial, but last month the prosecution dropped the arson charge and approved the boy's admission into a diversion program — no guilty plea required, just counseling sessions and classes and so on. (Although Carol Chambers says diversion is a frequent option for young offenders, it wasn't offered in Jacob's case until a few weeks ago.) The family is also going into mediation with the homeowners and insurance companies involved to work out a restitution plan.

"It's a huge relief," says Tina Christenson, Jacob's mom. "He's happy not to keep going back to court."

The outcome of the Christenson case is more the exception than the rule in the Eighteenth Judicial District, according to Kevin Chambers. "The prosecutors in this office right now just take the position that you should plead guilty as charged," he says. "They're not working with defense attorneys to achieve what's best for the kid. They're just trying to get as many convictions — sorry, adjudications — as they can. I have done more trials in the past few months than I have in the past fifteen years."

Maria Haddon says the damage left by the fire was far less troubling than what happened afterward.

"I still have nightmares and wake up screaming that my kids are being taken away," she explains. "The house fire and losing everything we owned should have been our trauma, but that was nothing compared to the trauma of our eleven-year-old being jailed and not being able to help him."