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Woman guilty in Williamsport arson

May 11, 2007|by ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN - An 18-year-old woman was found guilty Thursday of setting fire to a historic Williamsport house about a year after she and her family were evicted from the building.

Lauren Alexandria France was found guilty of arson and maliciously and willfully destroying another person's property by a Washington County Circuit Court jury that deliberated for less than 30 minutes.

France faces up to 20 years in prison, according to Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III, who delayed the woman's sentencing and ordered a presentence investigation.

The Aug. 30, 2006, fire at 6 Springfield Lane caused about $150,000 in damage to the former home of the town's founder, Otho Holland Williams.

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After the verdict was read, France started shaking as her mother, Patricia France, told her to remain calm. Lauren France was taken into custody by Washington County Sheriff's deputies and will be held in jail until sentencing.

Patricia France took over curatorship of the historic building in 2001, with the agreement that she would repair the home in return for living there rent-free, Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II testified.

Under the terms of her tenant contract, Patricia France was obligated to invest at least $50,000 in labor and materials. In return, she could live there rent-free for 10 years.

She failed to meet the terms of the contract, and after a battle that lasted several months and included a court hearing and eviction order, the Frances moved out Sept. 30, 2005. The family now lives in Clear Spring, according to court documents.

Assistant State's Attorney John Dunlap presented the jury with photographs of writing on the walls inside the Williamsport home. The writing was found on the walls of Lauren France's old bedroom, according to her mother's testimony.

The writing said "keep out of other people's stuff" and "next time will be worse," Dunlap said.

Friends testify

Robert Kelly, 19, testified that he was with France the night of the fire. He said he watched her break into a shed near the historic home, pour gasoline into a bucket, pour the contents of the bucket onto the porch and light a paper towel that she threw onto the porch.

Cameron Norris, 16, was also friends with France. After the fire, the woman showed him a cell-phone video of a big house burning, Norris testified.

"She said it was the one in the park and she did it," Norris testified. "She was laughing."

Michael Stumbaugh, 15, testified that Robert Kelly admitted to setting the fire.

Stumbaugh didn't believe Kelly because "Robert likes to brag," Stumbaugh said.

Assistant Public Defender Carl Creeden said during his closing argument that investigators did not pursue Kelly as a suspect in the case. They did not test his clothes or shoes for accelerants, Creeden said. Creeden also mentioned Kelly's criminal history as a convicted thief.

Dunlap said during his closing argument that Lauren France was an angry young woman who deliberately poured fire accelerants onto the home's porch and set it on fire during the early-morning hours of Aug. 30, 2006.

After the Frances moved out, volunteers were hoping to set up a living history museum in the building that predates the Civil War, Johnna Maravelis testified Thursday.

The Williamsport Town Council is set to approve a bid to return the historic home to its pre-fire state at its Monday meeting, McCleaf said after the trial.

"Of course, the town is pleased this is over with and done," he said.

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