Arsonist plea deal reversed

Written by Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat February 21, 2013 07:25 am

The man accused of burning down a restaurant in Columbia State Historic Park in December will return to Tuolumne County Superior Court on Monday, following the recent rejection of his plea deal.

Judge Eric DuTemple on Feb. 11 granted a motion from the District Attorney’s Office to reject the plea deal that defendant Daenon Vincent Brewer, 22, accepted at his preliminary hearing a month ago. 

Prosecutors asked the court to reject the deal because they discovered that damage to the Columbia House Restaurant is estimated at nearly $1 million instead of $250,000 — the value that was initially provided to them.

“Had I known that the damage was orders of magnitude higher, I would not have offered the plea currently under consideration by this court,” Deputy District Attorney Clint Parish said in the written request for a motion hearing.

The request was filed with the court on Feb. 8.

According to the document, Parish spoke with two witnesses on Jan. 10, who informed him that the damage totaled about $250,000. It also stated that fire investigators evaluated the damage, and an insurance company had not been involved in the estimation.

Judge Eric DuTemple granted the motion on the grounds that the plea was not made in the “interest of justice,” court documents said.

Brewer’s hearing next week is a preliminary hearing setting, where dates for a preliminary hearing could be discussed.

A new plea deal or a trial are both possibilities, Parish said.

Brewer’s plea deal would have required him to register as an arsonist and serve two years in state prison with the possibility for parole after one year.

Also part of the agreement, his misdemeanor charge of being under the influence of opiates at the time of the arson, plus unrelated misdemeanor charges, would have been dismissed.

The defendant’s mental illness was also taken into consideration at the time of the plea offer, Parish said.

Brewer’s mother, Dana Lancaster, of Sonora, said her son has been struggling with mental illness since he was hit by a car on May 14, 2010, in the Twain Harte area.

Brewer was in a coma and on life support at Memorial Medical Center in Modesto. His other injuries included a brain hemorrhage, shattered leg and burst spleen. 

Lancaster said his traumatic brain injury has led to multiple personality disorder, anger and paranoia. She said treating his illness has been a constant struggle.

Brewer had a drug addiction prior to the accident and now “self-medicates,” she said.

“No matter what happens, I’m afraid that Daenon won’t get the help he needs,” Lancaster said Wednesday.

Accompanying the request for a motion hearing were written statements from the California Department of Parks and Recreation and restaurant owners Steve and Doreen Kwasnicki.

The Kwasnickis, who took over the restaurant about six months ago, wrote, “This fire has devastated us … we had invested a substantial amount of money into developing this business.”

They noted the financial and emotional struggle the fire has put them, their family members and their employees through.

They also felt that, because of the extent of the damage, the sentence in the plea deal was not sufficient, according to the statement.

The Parks and Recreation Department expressed concerns about how it would impact park operations and visitor experience in Columbia State Historic Park. 

The statement was signed by Greg Martin, superintendent of the department’s Calaveras sector.

He said the restaurant was the only place within the park that served sit-down meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

His concerns for the park included revenue loss, a decline in aesthetic appeal, noise during reconstruction and a decrease in the amount of time people spend in the park. 

About 75 percent of the Main Street restaurant was destroyed, but no injuries were reported.

The Sheriff’s Office arrested Brewer at State and Main streets in Columbia at 6:34 p.m. Dec. 30, about 10 minutes after Cal Fire received multiple reports of a fire at the restaurant.

Investigators said Brewer broke into the closed business through the front door and set the restaurant’s Christmas tree on fire, according to Sheriff’s Sgt. Jeff Wilson.

The fire was contained at 8:02 p.m. and completely extinguished at 10:08 p.m., according to Cal Fire.