Mercy granted: Lamar church arsonist given minimum sentence at request of parishioners

| September 29, 2009

LAMAR, Mo. — John Franklin Manco was sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison for setting fire to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in February.

Manco, 20, was handed the minimum allowable sentence by Circuit Judge James Bickel after members of the church asked the judge for leniency.

“We feel that as a faith-based community and as a Catholic church, if we don’t show compassion to him, who will?” Terry Riegel, president of the St. Mary’s Parish Council, said after the sentencing in Barton County Circuit Court.

Under the initial charges, Manco could have faced a maximum of 35 years in prison, authorities said earlier. The plea bargain he entered set the maximum to which he could be sentenced at between 10 and 14 years.

Manco’s sentence consists of the following:

• Five years each for one count of second-degree burglary related to the church fire, one count of second-degree burglary for breaking into a house on East 18th Street in Lamar and one count of first-degree tampering with a motor vehicle, with the terms to be served concurrently.

• Five years for a Class C felony of drug possession, an unrelated incident, to be served consecutively to the first five-year term.

• Seven years for second-degree arson related to the Feb. 8 torching of the church, to be served concurrently with the two five-year terms.

Riegel said about 20 members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lamar were present for Manco’s sentencing.

“I think they were just members of the parish who just wanted to see closure on the deal,” Riegel said. “Most of them have been through the process of when he (Manco) confessed, had his first hearing and second hearing.”

Church member Jill Purinton read a prepared statement to the judge describing the loss of the church.

“Our faith is our soul,” she said. “(But) the 105-year-old building was the heart of our parish.”

Choking back emotions and struggling to keep her voice level, Purinton told the judge of the “gut-wrenching feeling” of watching the church become a pile of ashes, and of attending weddings and funerals of longtime church members and friends in other buildings.

Riegel then asked the judge to impose the minimum sentence for Manco. He said later that he had spoken to St. Mary’s parishioners about it and “didn’t have one comment to the negative.”

Defense attorney Joe Zuzul also pushed for the minimum sentence.

“Mr. Manco is remorseful, and he has been (remorseful),” he said. “He tried to put the fire out. Once he realized what he’d done, he tried to extinguish it. … You have this aspect of remorsefulness of Mr. Manco at the time … and certainly today.”

Barton County Prosecuting Attorney Steven Kaderly wasn’t swayed.

“The court needs to send a message as a deterrent effect that this (arson) is something we won’t tolerate,” Kaderly told the judge.

Kaderly later said that even with the minimum term, Manco would be serving a “long, serious” sentence.

“I think Mr. Riegel’s statement was persuasive,” Kaderly said. “Hopefully now the church can move forward.”

Zuzul said that while the incident was tragic for church members, it also was sad for Manco, who was 19 at the time.

“Hopefully he’ll draw something out of this and turn a negative into a positive,” he said.


John Franklin Manco will likely be eligible for parole at some point before his 10 years in prison are up, said Joe Zuzul, his defense attorney.

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Category: Church Security

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