Trial by fire

Burning homes for the insurance money just isn’t all that common in Western North Carolina, according to arson investigators. It does happen, but getting even is a more likely motive.

“I’ve seen a lot of the spite-and-revenge types of fires,” reveals arson investigator Harley Shuford. Among mountain folk, says the straight-talking Shuford, a spurned lover is more inclined to reach for a box of matches and a full can of gasoline than for a shotgun or knife.

Perhaps the most notorious local example of a spite fire, in recent years, was the one involving former WLOS-TV news anchor Karen Coulon. She was indicted on a second-degree arson charge for lighting a charcoal blaze in the bed of her estranged lover, attorney Robert H. Haggard, and destroying part of his Fairview farmhouse on Aug. 18, 1991. When the popular television personality was acquitted in Buncombe County Superior Court, angry members of Asheville’s black community complained of preferential treatment and judicial inequality.

“Karen Coulon was the O.J. Simpson case of Asheville,” asserts Assistant District Attorney Al Williams. “It was a sympathy verdict for a celebrity.”

Williams describes Coulon as a peppy morning-news anchor who had a history of bizarre behavior with past boyfriends. Her stormy affair with Haggard had apparently been winding down for months before she broke into his place, piled his clothes and charcoal on the bed, and set them on fire.

There was a tremendous amount of pretrial pressure on the district attorney’s office — from both the public and WLOS — to let Coulon plead guilty to a lesser charge. Although prosecutors weren’t seeking a prison sentence, Williams says, they were reluctant to let her plead down, fearing that she might set more fires. They wanted her to get psychological help, so she “didn’t hurt someone the next time.”

“She was more than just somebody on TV — she was very popular on TV,” he recalls. “I know I personally received telephone calls from the WLOS station manager. He wanted a misdemeanor charge, so he could put her back on TV. I said, ‘Gee, I’m sorry, but we don’t care about her career and [whether] you want to put her back on TV.'”

According to court testimony reported in the March 20, 1992 Asheville Citizen-Times, Haggard was working in his Asheville office when Coulon used a brick to break into his house. She set the fire, she said, when she felt depressed and angry after hearing the voice of another woman asking Haggard for a date on his answering machine.

After starting the blaze, Coulon left in her car, taking some kitchen utensils and the answering machine. Early on in the arson investigation, she gave authorities conflicting accounts of both her whereabouts on the day of the fire and her rocky affair with Haggard. Eventually, investigators found the answering machine.

On the witness stand, Coulon admitted to having set the fire, but said she’d intended only to burn his clothes, not to do $40,000 worth of damage to the house. She also acknowledged that she’d have to face up to her relationship problems and seek help from a therapist.

Perhaps anticipating the verdict, Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher tried to educate the jury on the finer points of second-degree arson, which carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison. “If you throw a match into a trash can and a house burns down, the charge is attempting to burn the house,” explained Dreher in her closing remarks, according to the Citizen-Times report. Coulon, she said, was “a spoiled television actress” who had attempted to mislead investigators.

The seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated two hours before acquitting Coulon. After the trial, several jurors said that they believed she hadn’t intended to torch the house; prosecutors called it a sympathy verdict. “She was acquitted, and then the public realized how dumb this was,” says Williams. “And, of course, WLOS decided not to keep her. [Prosecutors] treated her just like anybody else, but I’m not saying the jury did.”

A week after the acquittal, 250 people packed the Asheville Middle School to attend a forum on sentencing inequities in Buncombe County. Many members of Asheville’s black community were in the audience; some were enraged because James Respert, a black man and a felon, had received a 30-year sentence for burning down the administration building at the Oak Knoll Apartments, only a month before Coulon was set free.

Several of Respert’s family members attended the forum, maintaining his innocence; others in the audience decried the judicial system’s unequal treatment of blacks and whites, in terms of sentencing. District Attorney Ron Moore and Coulon juror Bernice Goetz were part of a panel that tried to explain what had happened in the Coulon verdict.

“Not to discount the way black people feel about the judicial system,” Williams says, “but personally, I don’t think it had anything to do with race, but that she was a celebrity.”

As for the Respert case, Williams says the circumstantial evidence was strong, and that the accused was a suspect in several apartment fires. The day of the Oak Knoll fire, Respert had apparently had a run-in with the apartment manager, because he was being evicted. He also had a long arrest record.

“At the time, I offered his lawyer an opportunity to plead guilty and get 20 years,” notes Williams. “[Respert] didn’t take it, and he got convicted.”

What didn’t make the papers, Williams recalls, was a white mother who stood up at the forum and talked about her son’s case. Apparently, he already had a lengthy rap sheet when he burned a greenhouse in Fairview, and he was facing a 75-year sentence. Williams says he offered this guy’s lawyer the same deal as he did Respert’s — and this lawyer grabbed it.

“The mother said we treated white people different than black people,” remembers Williams, because of her kid’s lighter sentence and this seemed to bolster the judicial inequity argument until Ron Moore dropped a bit of bomb. “[He] mentioned that investigators found all kinds of white-supremacy and swastika stuff in the kid’s bedroom, and she got out of [the auditorium] pretty quickly.” Although the DA is supposed to seek justice, Williams says the law is not always cut-and-dried. Various factors can influence what charges are brought against a person. He cites the case of a woman whom he allowed to plead down to a misdemeanor in 1993. She, too, had set a fire, causing $40,000 worth of damage to her ex-husband’s house. “There was a history of domestic abuse,” says Williams, adding, “You cannot turn your back on something like that.”

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