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Archive for Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Former student registers arson plea

Counts include setting fire to Watson Library

July 11, 2006

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A mentally ill former Kansas University student entered a plea Monday to setting a fire at Watson Library and two other Lawrence buildings in 2004, part of a monthlong arson spree here and in Johnson County.

David R. Jay, 26, pleaded no contest Monday in Douglas County District Court to one count of aggravated arson for the Watson fire March 8, 2004, in which he used a starter log to set fire to a pile of books in the isolated "stacks" area.

He also pleaded no contest to two counts of arson for two fires that same week in Lawrence. One was at the dental office of Keith Jones, 647 Country Club Terrace, and another was at Clinton Parkway Nursery & Garden Store, 4900 Clinton Parkway.

"I think he was having a fascination with fire," Dist. Atty. Charles Branson said. "I don't think he was setting out to try to hurt anybody, but that's not a deciding factor for us" in how the case was handled.

The plea is likely to add five years to a six-year sentence Jay already is serving from Johnson County, where he was convicted of 13 arson counts. One of those fires destroyed a senior center under construction in Olathe, causing $7 million in damage and injuring a firefighter.

After Jay's arrest, he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome - essentially high-functioning autism - attention-deficit disorder, mild cognitive delay and a form of psychosis. He told police he just wanted to see a fire - the more spectacular, the better.

Growing up in Beloit, Jay attended space camp, was on his school's quiz-bowl team and was often made fun of, his mother, Joyce, said in 2004. When he went to Kansas University and lived in the residence halls, he "couldn't take the chaos," she said.

He quit KU, went to work, and was misdiagnosed with panic disorder while living in Lawrence, his mother said. Shortly before the arsons, he had been laid off from a job at Pearson Government Solutions in Lawrence.

"We had always thought, 'He'll come around. He's going to find his way.' That wasn't what was happening," she said. "He was lost in a different world altogether."

He will be sentenced in Douglas County Aug. 10.

He was initially charged in the Watson fire with arson causing "substantial risk of bodily harm," but he pleaded no contest to a lesser form of arson that carries a shorter sentence. Branson said there was a risk jurors wouldn't convict him of the more severe charge, given that the books were on a metal shelf and an officer was able to extinguish the fire at the scene.

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