Charges pending on Jaycees fireworks fire
July 9, 2009
Tim Leeds Havre Daily News [email protected]
One of the three men accused of stealing fireworks from and burning down the Havre Jaycees fireworks stand last week said this morning he will do what he can to make up for his actions. “I feel guilty about it, really bad,” Charles Stratton, 20, said in a telephone interview from the Hill County Detention Center. “I'm going to do what I can to make it right.” Stratton and Lester T. Skramstad, 18, are facing arson, burglary and theft charges. Anthony W. Groce, 18, faces charges of arson by accountability, burglary and theft. The three are accused of breaking into the stand during the early morning of June 30, stealing fireworks from the stand and burning it to the ground. Proceeds from the stand's fireworks sales are used to pay for the annual Fourth of July fireworks display put on by the Jaycees. Stratton and Skramstad are accused of throwing lit flares into the stand, while Groce is accused of participating in the act while not actually throwing a flare himself. Hill County Attorney Gina Dahl Wednesday filed motions requesting leave to file the charges in state District Court in Havre. According to the affidavit, the three said they had not targeted the Jaycees booth, but that it was a random act. Stratton said this morning that what the men did on June 30 was just something that got out of hand. “It wasn't intended to happen the way it did,” he said. He said he doesn't know how long it will take, but he will try to make up for what happened. “When I get out, I'm going to do what it takes to pay for everything, for my part of it,” Stratton said. “I will make it right eventually.” In a letter Stratton sent to the Havre Daily News, which the paper received this morning, he apologized to the Jaycees and to the Havre community. “What we did was heinous and irresponsible,” he wrote. “All of us will regret what we did for the rest of our lives.” The request for leave to file charges against the three men was filed after a three-day investigation by the Havre Fire Department and the Hill County Sheriff's Office. Video footage and witness testimony led to the arrest of the three Havre men last Thursday. A witness told the investigating deputy that Skramstad had “bragged about how he was going to host a Fourth of July party because he had a lot of fireworks,” the affidavit says. Havre firefighters responded to a report at 4:27 a.m. June 30 that the stand. According to the affidavit detailing the investigation by the Havre Fire Department and the Hill County Sheriff's Office, when interviewed at the Hill County Detention Center on July 2, the three suspects admitted that they had broken into the stand early on the morning of June 30, had filled a vehicle with fireworks from the s tand and then had returned and Stratton and Skramstad had thrown road flares into the stand, causing it to catch on fire. If convicted of the arson and burglary charges, each of the three faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the offenses. The theft charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The Jaycees had reported that the stand, which had recently been refurbished, was valued at about $7,000. The fireworks inside had a retail value of $20,000 to $30,000, and personal items belonging to members of the Jaycees also were in the stand and valued at about $200. The Jaycees fired off about $5,300 worth of fireworks on July 4. The service organization, before the three suspects were arrested and the stolen fireworks recovered, made a plea to the community to help pay for the display to make up for the lost revenue. The investigation included statements from witnesses that they had heard the three suspects talking about how they had stolen the fireworks and burned the stand down. It also included a statement from a witness who described a vehicle she had seen pulling into the Holiday Village parking lot shortly before the fire was reported, and details of a surveillance video provided by the Big R store at Holiday Village. Early in the investigation, a witness told Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard that she had seen an older blue car pulling into the mall parking lot about 4 a.m. June 30. The witness later was able to provide information on the license plate, a personalized plate saying “Chuck32.” That plate is on a 1972 Ford Maverick registered to Stratton, the affidavit says. A sheriff's deputy Cory Matkin, who was investigating the incident viewed surveillance tapes of the parking lot provided by Big R, the affidavit says. The survei l lance video shows a person running across the mall parking lot at 3:57 a.m., the affidavit says. It then shows a vehicle driving near the fireworks stand, with no headlights on, at 3:58 a.m., the affidavit says. The car then turned around, its headlights activated, and the car drove out of the camera's view. It appeared that the vehicle had dropped off the person running across the parking lot, the affidavit says. The video then shows a single person running north in front of the Big R store toward the main entrance to the mall, later returning to the view of the video camera and walking in the area of the fireworks stand. The car returned to the scene at 4:20 a.m., at which time the individual seen in the video entered the vehicle, the affidavit says. The remaining pertinent portion of the videos showed the car, which appeared to be a 1972 Ford Maverick, pulling over to the stand, then pulling away and the stand starting on fire, the affidavit says. A firefighter said that while the Havre firefighters were fighting the blaze, three young men pulled into the lot in a dark-colored car, the affidavit says. Hedges said he told one of the three, who came closer to the fire than the other two, that they should leave, because he was concerned for their safety. The firefighter later picked out a photo of Skramstad from a lineup as the person to whom he had spoken. During the investigation, several witnesses told deputies that they had heard the suspects talking about the incident and one told the deputies where some of the stolen fireworks were stored, the affidavit says. According to the affidavit, deputies found fireworks in a vehicle stored at the residence of one of the suspects, two large heavy-duty plastic bags full. More fireworks were found in Stratton's car. According to the affidavit, Stratton originally consented to having his car searched, but revoked his consent once the trunk was opened and the deputies saw fireworks inside. The car was impounded. A third bag of fireworks was found hidden in a garage, the affidavit says. According to the affidavit, the three men put so many fireworks into the car that Groce could not get in. Stratton and Skramstad returned to pick him up after they unloaded the stolen fireworks, the affidavit says, at which time they threw the flare into the stand.