Darren Butler pleads no contest to embezzling from Mt. Zion church

| March 16, 2010

MARTINSBURG – A 31-year-old Martinsburg man accused of setting fire to his own rental home while his family slept inside in an attempt to collect on an insurance policy accepted a plea agreement Monday.

Darren Butler, formerly of South Raleigh Street, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree arson and five counts of felony child neglect creating a substantial risk of bodily injury. He also pleaded no contest to one count of embezzlement in connection to an unrelated case in which he was accused of stealing $4,059 from Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Martinsburg while serving as church treasurer in 2008.

The July 1, 2008, fire happened at Butler's rental home at 703 S. Raleigh St. in Martinsburg.

Butler's three children, stepchild, niece and former wife were sleeping inside the home at the time of the fire.

The case was investigated by the Martinsburg City Police Department and the Martinsburg Fire Department. Chief Fire Investigator Greg Hoover determined that the fire, which was actually the sum of two blazes, was intentionally set.

One fire was set using combustible materials in the basement and a second fire was set using combustible materials on a living room couch.

Investigators were able to determine that Butler and his now former wife had acquired a massive debt, and Butler had taken out a renter's insurance policy through Liberty Mutual just days before the fire.

"My wife and I were $60,000 in debt. I started the fire to get us out of debt and make a better life for ourselves," Butler told Circuit Court Judge Christopher Wilkes before entering his plea. "I knew that children were in the home at the time of the fire."

As a result of the fire and ensuing criminal investigation, Butler was indicted in February 2009 on one count of first-degree arson, fives counts of felony child neglect creating a substantial risk of bodily injury and setting a fire with intent to defraud insurance. Last May, he also was indicted on one count of embezzlement in connection to the case involving the church.

In accordance with the plea agreement, the charge of setting a fire with intent to defraud insurance was dismissed.

As a result of Butler's decision to plead guilty to the arson charge, the state, represented by Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely, has agreed not to argue for more than a 15-year sentence for the arson conviction at sentencing.

Christopher Prezioso, Butler's attorney, also said that both parties have reached a binding agreement that the one-to-10-year prison sentence for embezzlement as a result of Butler's no-contest plea will run concurrent to whatever sentence he receives for the arson conviction.

Butler faces a one-to-five-year prison sentence on each of the five counts of felony child neglect. Under the terms of the plea agreement, those five sentences will be served consecutively, meaning Butler will be sentenced to a combined sentence of five to 25 years in prison for the criminal convictions. However, both sides have agreed that they will be free to argue at sentencing whether or not those combined sentences should be served consecutive to the sentence Butler will receive on the first-degree arson and embezzlement convictions.

Butler also will be ordered to pay restitution in connection to both the arson and embezzlement, court costs and associated fines. As a result of his guilty plea on the child neglect charges, the court also might make a finding that he is an abusive parent. That would require Butler to be registered with the state's central child abuse registry and could trigger abuse and neglect proceedings that may see Butler losing all parental rights to his children.

"The worst-case scenario would be the termination of parental rights," Wilkes told Butler. "… (But) I don't know what might happen."

Butler had been scheduled to go to trial today.

His former wife, who was present in the courtroom Monday, told Wilkes that she already had been granted decision-making power for the children and Butler had not been granted visitation rights.

After Butler entered his pleas, the matter was then sent out for a pre-sentence investigation. Butler's sentencing is scheduled for 1 p.m. June 22 before Wilkes.

Butler remains in custody at the Eastern Regional Jail while awaiting sentencing.



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Category: Church Security

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