Bloomington man sentenced to 16 years for 2007 arson

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Sept. 23, 2013 at 4:23 a.m.

A Bloomington man was given a 16-year prison sentence Monday even though the woman whose home he set on fire did not want to see that happen.

Aaron Flores Darnell, 27, was charged with arson after officials say he took a lighter to objects in the bedroom of an unoccupied, 600-square-foot home in the 500 block of Rio Grande Street in Bloomington on March 20, 2007.

District Judge Kemper Stephen Williams also assessed a $10,000 fine.

The state contended Darnell set the place ablaze because he felt jilted by the homeowner, a previous lover who had reunited with her husband and moved out of state.

Prosecutors presented evidence that they said would show Darnell then feigned mental retardation for years to get out of facing a jury or a judge.

Darnell pleaded guilty Aug. 30.

Defense attorney Joyce M. Leita cross-examined the homeowner, Maria Luna, on Monday afternoon. She asked whether Luna knew Darnell to be obsessed with fire or violent toward animals.

Luna said she did not.

Luna also admitted she would prefer Darnell receive probation.

Leita also tried to prove the mental retardation diagnosis was correct.

To make the argument that Darnell should be placed on probation, Leita called three women working in the mental health industry in Nueces County.

Rashelle Young, a service coordinator at the Behavioral Health Center in Nueces County, testified she's known Darnell for three to four months. She described him as high functioning and said tests show his IQ ranges from 56 to 62.

Those with mental retardation have an IQ of 69 or below, Young said.

And although she knew little about his criminal and compliance history, Renee Hundley, the executive director of Community Options Inc., agreed to accept Darnell into a group home in Corpus Christi should he be placed on probation.

Assistant Criminal District Attorney Johna Stallings said that proved nothing, though.

"Do you ever turn people away?" she asked Hundley.

"We can't turn people away," Hundley said, noting a program the company is involved in requires it to make a good-faith effort to help any person who qualifies for and seeks their rehabilitative assistance.

Patrol Sgt. Roman Goodwine of the Victoria County Sheriff's Office also testified Darnell drew his attention while he was securing the scene on the night of the fire.

"Every time I tried to get a good look at him, he would ride away (on his bicycle)," Goodwine said.

When Goodwine tracked him down, Darnell said he was on his way back from the store.

Darnell did not seem nervous nor did he admit to knowing who owned the home, Goodwine said.

During closing arguments, Leita asked the judge to consider how former Victoria County Fire Marshal W. Kyle Young described Darnell being saddened by the sight of the house, not angry.

"I am not condoning the fire, but I ask the court to consider the circumstances of the fire," she said. "Mr. Young did not say Aaron set the fire out of any malice."

She also pointed out the house was not worth very much, and the only furniture or appliance inside may have been a bed.

"He needs a chance to show he can improve his life," she said.

Stallings asked Darnell be sentenced to 40 years in prison but was pleased with the outcome.

"I think it's important to take a serious stance on an offense like this," because firefighters and neighbors may get hurt, she said afterward. "It doesn't matter where the house was or what kind of house it was."



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