Jacob Christenson of Parker would like everyone to know that he is very, very sorry about the events of May 9, a few weeks before his eleventh birthday. He did light a piece of paper on fire, but he had no idea it was going to cause so much trouble. Can he go home now?
Alas, no. At the behest of Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers's office, Jacob and another juvenile are facing a second-degree arson charge over the fire they set, which caused upwards of $195,000 in damages to two townhomes.
Given the age of the perps and the circumstances, Jacob's defenders see the move as prosecutorial overkill. "It was a bad mistake, but second-degree arson?" asks Tina Christenson, Jacob's mom. "That's pretty major."
Christenson, who lives in the same complex where the fire occurred and works at Home Depot, is a single mom of five. Jacob is in the middle of the pack. "None of my kids have ever been in any trouble," she says. "Unfortunately, Jacob was being a ten-year-old boy."
Jacob says he and a slightly older friend were just killing time last Mother's Day when they got the bright idea of playing around with a plastic lighter Jacob had found.
"We were just walking around, being bored," Jacob says. "[The older boy] told me to light this piece of paper on fire. I was like, okay, but I wasn't lighting anything else. It burned him, and he threw it into the bush. And I tried to get it out, and I got burned. Then we started throwing rocks at it, trying to put it out."
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The bush in question was one of several dry evergreens that lined one side of a townhome a couple of blocks from Jacob's place. It went up like last year's Christmas tree. "It started catching on the center bush," Jacob recalls. "Then it lit the first bush. And it went to the third and fourth and then to the house. It just happened. We both started running, and we were yelling for help. Somebody saw the fire and called the cops, and the fire department people came up. I'd never seen anything like it except on the news."
Tina remembers her son running into the house, screaming for her to call 911. "By the time I got outside, the fire department was already there," she says.
The initial story the boys told about the fire somehow omitted their involvement. Once they sat down with an investigator, Tina urged her frightened son to tell the truth. He admitted setting the piece of paper on fire.
No one was injured in the blaze, but the devastation to one townhome was significant -- an entire wall went up, and there was extensive water damage inside. (The Douglas County Assessor's Office values the property at $133,000.) But Jacob's public defender believes the second-degree arson charge is unwarranted, since it requires that the damage be caused "knowingly."
"That's what boys do," says attorney Dariel Weaver. "They play with magnifying glasses and matches, they have rock fights. I don't think you can say that Jacob set out with the intention to burn a house down."
Weaver says she's not trying to minimize the damage the homeowners suffered because of boys being bad boys. But, she points out, most of the restitution being sought won't go to the homeowners at this point but their insurance companies, the major beneficiaries of the juveniles' prosecution.
"Yes, these people suffered losses," Weaver says. "But that can be addressed civilly. The criminal justice system is being used to recover civil damages from a ten-year old."
Is it overkill? "Absolutely. But it doesn't surprise me with this jurisdiction," Weaver says, referring to the hardliner reputation of Chambers' office.
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The lead prosecutor in the case didn't respond to requests for comment. Tina says she's inflicted some punishments of her own for what her son did, including grounding him and telling him he'll have to do odd jobs for friends and contribute what he can to whatever restitution figure is settled upon. She also wants him to write a letter of apology and read it aloud to the homeowner -- something he's not permitted to do right now because of a no-contact order in the case, which bars him from speaking to the fire's victims or his co-defendant.
"Obviously, there's going to be restitution that has to be paid," Tina says. "We haven't talked about all the options yet."
A hearing in the case is scheduled in juvenile court later this month, with a trial date in February.
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