EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 21, 2013

Woman sentenced in Derry arson case

Tenant pleads guilty to setting three fires at condo complex

By Doug Ireland
direland@eagletribune.com

---- — BRENTWOOD — Cheryl Wheaton didn't like some of the people in her condominium complex and thought they should be evicted.

So when she suspected there was drug dealing and other troublesome activity going on at Hillside Estates in Derry, the 57-year-old grandmother took matters into her own hands.

She set three fires at the 24-unit complex over a three-month period to make it look like the other tenants did it so they would be evicted.

Her scheme didn't work, but it did lead to at least $10,000 in damage and caused residents of the complex to fear for their lives, according to Assistant County Attorney Bradley Bolton.

Wheaton pleaded guilty to three arson charges yesterday in Rockingham Superior Court and was sentenced to two to four years in state prison by Judge N. William Delker.

Wheaton, free on $10,000 cash bail, later moved to Salem after she was charged with setting the three fires in 2011 at the complex at 4 Pembroke Drive. She was not charged in connection with what police said were two other suspicious fires at the complex.

The mother of four and grandmother of seven stood quietly before Delker as she pleaded guilty to the felony charges, each punishable by seven and a half to 15 years in prison if convicted at trial.

Wheaton initially told police two years ago that she wasn't responsible for the fires but later said she set them while sleepwalking.

She allegedly took a double dose of sleeping pills when the first fire was set in an empty unit about 11 p.m. on July, 21, 2011, Bolton said.

The next fire was Aug. 12 and the third Oct. 30 — during an infamous snowstorm that knocked out power, meaning smoke alarms were inoperable, he said.

Bolton said Wheaton deserved to spend at least three to six years in prison because of the crimes' severity.

"They were all set while people were asleep," he said. "Everyone in that building had a great risk."

An investigation by Derry police revealed that Wheaton, who suffers from bipolar depression, was seeking revenge against her neighbors, Bolton said.

Three months before the first fire, a confrontation involving other tenants led to a gunshot being fired, Bolton said. Wheaton wanted those involved in the fight to be evicted, prompting her to light the fires, he said.

She also believed neighbors were dealing drugs and wanted them out, Bolton said.

"That is not a rationale for setting fires at an apartment complex," he said. "People were on edge for quite awhile. It is a very serious offense."

The fires damaged the vacant apartment, the laundry room and the boiler room at the complex, according to police.

Wheaton's attorney, William Gilmore, defended his client and called her a changed person. He said she was receiving counseling and treatment for her mental health issues and alcoholism.

"She understands today that setting the fires was not a rational act," Gilmore said. "She has expressed complete remorse."

Gilmore said Wheaton never intended to hurt anyone.

"Her attempt was to try to draw attention to the problems at Hillside Estates," Gilmore said.

He asked that she only serve a year or two in prison.

But Delker was not swayed.

"Not once, not twice but three times you put a lot of people in danger of losing their lives and their property," the judge said.

He also gave her five- to 10-year suspended prison sentences on two of the three charges and ordered that she pay more than $10,000 in restitution for the damage to the complex.

She was also ordered to stay away from the complex and must serve five years of probation upon her release.

A representative from the condominium association attended the hearing but declined to speak in court.