Church arsonists headed to prison

| September 26, 2010

WOONSOCKET — Two men who admitted burning down an Artesian church in November were each sentenced to four years in the state penitentiary Wednesday.

John Bothwell, 20, of Artesian, and Joey Johnson, 19, of Clara City, Minn., and formerly of Fedora, were each sentenced to an eight-year penitentiary sentence, half of which was suspended by Judge David Gienapp.

The pair is required to pay back $35,000 in restitution. They are both jointly and severally liable for the amount, meaning each person is responsible for determining their respective portions of liability and payment.

Bothwell and Johnson were arrested in May in connection with the fire. After initially pleading not guilty, the pair later changed their plea to guilty.

The money they were ordered to pay will go toward the cost of building a new church, which State’s Attorney Jeff Larson estimated at $115,000. Insurance provided the remaining $80,000, Larson said.

Bothwell and Johnson will also have to pay $104 each in court costs.

During the sentencing hearing in Woonsocket, both men apologized for their actions.

Rev. LeShea Avery made a statement to explain how difficult it was to lose the building.

In January, at least 60 adult members of the church voted to rebuild on the site.

Following the sentencing, tension between the two men was evident. Wearing a dress shirt and tie, Johnson accused Bothwell of having “rolled over on him.”

Bothwell, sporting shaggy blond hair and an untucked yellow T-shirt, responded that he only held a candle while Johnson burned books that led to the fire.

The 70-plus-year-old church was reduced to a pile of rubble around 4 a.m. Nov. 23. An investigation into the fire’s cause began immediately and eventually led the Sanborn County Sheriff ’s Department to the two men.

Larson praised the department for their work in finding the culprits behind the fire.

“The church was so totally destroyed that we didn’t have a lot of evidence,” Larson said. “The Sheriff’s Office found a few cracks. Eventually, through some good investigation, they got to these guys and told us what happened.”

Larson said he was satisfied with the sentence. The case, he said, was the first arson case he’s handled in almost 30 years in Sanborn County.

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