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Man gets six years in firefighter's death

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An Alum Creek man will spend up to six years in prison for setting a fire near the Steven Wayne Smith Memorial Bridge last December, indirectly causing the death of a firefighter who fell from the bridge as he was attempting to locate the blaze.

Charles Darren Roberts, 37, was sentenced Tuesday on two counts of arson and one misdemeanor count of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Davis Creek volunteer firefighter Joey King, who fell from the bridge while trying to find the source of the fire. The six-year term, which included five years for the counts of arson and a year for the involuntary manslaughter, was the maximum sentence Roberts could have received by law.

On Dec. 3, Roberts ignited a cardboard box to catch a tire on fire, police said at the time. The fire also ignited 160 railroad ties. King was looking for the tire when he fell off the bridge, officials said.

King's family members, along with Davis Creek Volunteer Fire Chief Jeff Snodgrass, asked Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman to impose the maximum sentence.

"This man's destroyed my life," Kay Carson, King's common-law wife of 20 years, said during Tuesday's sentencing through spurts of sobbing. "I will never be able to forgive him for what he's done to me.

"Six years is not enough time for Joey's life. Not enough."

In April, a grand jury indicted Roberts on charges of first-degree murder in connection to King's death. In return for his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to reduce the murder charge to involuntary manslaughter.

Arietta King, one of Joey King's four sisters, said she originally wanted Roberts to spend the rest of his life in prison. She softened her stance when Roberts pleaded guilty in April, admitting that his actions caused her brother's death, she said.

She asked Roberts to make a better life for himself when he gets out of prison, and asked the judge for permission to shake Roberts' hand. The judge did not allow the handshake.

Kanawha County assistant prosecutor Dan Holstein noted that Roberts testified last year during the preliminary hearing of Shawn Thomas Lester, who pleaded guilty last month to second-degree murder charges linked to the death of one of three people killed with a rifle outside of Kanawha County convenience stores in 2003.

During the hearing, held in April 2011, several months before the incident that led to King's death, Roberts testified that he had befriended Lester in the regional jail, and that Lester had asked him how "lifers" were treated at the penitentiary.

Roberts said Lester admitted to him that he killed his three victims in retaliation for the theft of drugs from his Rutledge Road garage. The drugs belonged to a Mexican national named Gilberto "Tito" Lopez, who later was revealed to have operated a multimillion-dollar methamphetamine enterprise that stretched from Indiana to Kanawha County.

"I had respect for human life," Roberts told Kaufman during Tuesday's sentencing hearing, when Kaufman asked about his mindset during Lester's preliminary hearing. "When I found out what I found out, I felt I had to come forward."

Lester's sentencing is set for Friday before Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom.

Holstein said that while Roberts' testimony during the hearing helped prosecutors prove that their case had enough merit for a grand jury investigation, his assistance was not factored into his plea agreement in the death of King.

"From my perspective, it was not a part of this agreement, and he shouldn't get brownie points," Holstein said.

Roberts' lawyer, John Carr, said his client has been in 23-hour lockdown ever since he decided to cooperate in the sniper investigation.

Roberts said he had no expectation that someone would get killed the night he set the fire that initiated the chain reaction of tragic events.

"I know there's no 'sorry' can make up for what I did," he said, later adding, "It's opened my eyes to a lot of things."

Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.Taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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