TYNDALL — The trial for a Niobrara, Neb., couple charged with starting their own Springfield business on fire has been postponed until Jan. 28, according to the Bon Homme County clerk of courts office.
Charles Johnson and Kimberly Johnson are both charged with second-degree arson and reckless burning in the October 2010 early-morning fire that destroyed two downtown Springfield businesses — including their steakhouse — and damaged a third one.
Both charges are Class 4 felonies, each carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in the state penitentiary and a $20,000 fine.
The Johnsons have each pleaded not guilty to the charges. The defendants are scheduled to stand trial together, and no motion has been filed so far requesting a change of venue, according to the Bon Homme County clerk of courts.
The Johnsons’ trial had been scheduled to begin Aug. 13 in Tyndall. However, the defense made a motion July 25 for a continuance to allow more preparation time for the trial. The motion was granted, and the proceedings are delayed.
In addition, Charles Johnson has made a motion to allow the hiring of an expert witness, according to court papers. The date for that motions hearing hasn’t been set, according to the Bon Homme County clerk of courts.
The defendants are represented by court-appointed attorneys, according to the clerk’s office. Yankton attorney Creighton Thurman represents Kimberly Johnson, while Menno attorney Ken Bertsch represents Charles Johnson.
Bon Homme County State’s Attorney Lisa Rothschadl has represented the prosecution.
Besides seeking a delay in the trial date, Charles Johnson has also requested that the court give permission to hire an expert witness in his defense. According to court records, Johnson based his request on the following reasons:
(1) The State of South Dakota has indicated it will use at least two expert witnesses. One expert witness is believed to testify as to how the fire started, and a second expert is expected to testify as to the defendant’s financial condition worsening over the two years prior to the fire.
(2) In order to assist counsel in preparation of a defense and to ensure that the court hears expert testimony other than just that presented by the state, and to ensure the defendant receive a fair trial, it is necessary that experts be retained both in the areas of fire investigation and causation, and financial accounting.
(3) The motion includes the background, expertise and fee schedule of Michael A. Schlatman, president and senior special investigator for Fire Consulting & Case Review International of Shawnee Mission, Kan. Schlatman has worked for the company since March 2005, and the motion includes his background in security, fire investigations and as a police officer and detective since February 1969.
(4) The motion also includes the background and letter from Lawrence S. Harden, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) that the defendant desires to retain, setting forth in the letter his estimated fees for the initial evaluation and consultation.
(5) Based on information currently available to the defendant, it is believed the state will also call an electrical engineer to testify that this fire was not due to an electrical fault. Therefore, based on consultations with the defendant’s fire expert, there may be a need to hire an electrical engineer to act as a consultant and expert witness. Such an electrical engineer has not yet been identified.
The Johnsons were indicted in First Circuit Court in Tyndall. The indictments charge the couple with allegedly starting the fire to collect insurance.
Warrants were issued for the Johnsons, and they were arrested April 4 by the Knox County, Neb., sheriff’s office. The Johnsons each posted $5,000 cash bond and were released. The Johnsons waived extradition at a Knox County hearing.
The Johnsons owned Libby’s Steakhouse, one of the buildings damaged by the October 2010 fire, according to Bon Homme County Sheriff Jason Bechtold. The state Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) handled the case, the sheriff said.
The Springfield fire department responded to a call of smoke coming out of Libby’s around 2:30 a.m. Avon, Lesterville, Tabor, Tyndall and Yankton fire departments were called in to assist with the blaze.
Libby’s Steakhouse was a one-story building, as was the adjoining Boschma Legal Services building also destroyed in the blaze. Bon Homme Insurance received smoke and water damage. Mr. Golf Car, Inc., was reported to have received minor damage.
No one was injured during the incident. The state fire marshal’s office investigated the cause of the blaze.
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