Man admits torching condo to cover tracks

Sign thefts dropped in exchange for plea

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Matthew John Hoffman's eyes welled up with tears Friday as he gazed up at the courtroom ceiling moments after pleading guilty to arson and a handful of other crimes.

Hoffman, 19, pleaded guilty to first-degree arson, second-degree burglary, theft, first-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft and reckless endangerment. Of the five charges, all but the reckless endangerment are felonies.

In exchange for admitting guilt to those charges, Hoffman, of Warren, Ohio, avoided prosecution for stealing two wooden "Welcome to Steamboat Springs" signs.

Hoffman pleaded guilty in District Judge Joel S. Thompson's courtroom to setting a fire in the early morning hours of Aug. 28 to cover up a burglary at The Ridge condominiums.

The fire destroyed two condominiums and damaged eight others. Sixteen people had to be evacuated but no one was injured.

Hoffman had gained access to one of the condominiums after doing plumbing work inside. He took a variety of items from the condo, packed them in the owner's Suburban and drove off. However he abandoned the vehicle just down the road when he saw that police officers and firefighters were responding to the fire.

Police linked Hoffman to the burglary while they were investigating him for the theft of the two wooden "Welcome" signs. The signs, made by a local woodsmith and worth about $5,000 each, were stolen over the summer.

Hoffman could face a considerable amount of prison time when he is sentenced by Judge Thompson at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 1.

The arson, burglary and motor vehicle theft each carry a prison term of between two and 24 years, plus a fine and five years of parole. The felony theft charge carries a prison term of between one and 12 years, a fine and three years of parole.

For the misdemeanor, Hoffman could be sentenced to the Routt County Jail for six months and be fined as much as $750.

"There is no agreement of what sentence I could impose," Thompson said to the young man wearing a gray sweatshirt and blue pants issued by the Routt County Jail.

Thompson also indicated to Hoffman the punishment he decides upon for each charge can be served consecutively, one right after another, or concurrently, at the same time.

Also, as part of the plea agreement, Hoffman will pay restitution for the damage the fire caused.

"I have to submit the restitution to the court, but I don't know what the dollar amount is at this time," Deputy District Attorney Charles Feldmann said.

Before Hoffman, who was in restraints, pleaded guilty to the charges in a firm voice, he had the opportunity to visit briefly with his mother, who gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

According to records from the case, Hoffman set fire to a unit in the eight-unit Ridge building to cover up the burglary he committed the day before.

Hoffman was arrested by Steamboat Springs police on Sept. 26 after he agreed to come back from Ohio to discuss the theft of the city signs. The signs had been found in Hoffman's former apartment at the D Bark K Motel, 35495 U.S. Highway 40.

Authorities suspected Hoffman might be linked to the arson and the vehicle theft because he had access to the condominium through his prior place of employment. Hoffman had obtained keys to the condominium and the Suburban while he was installing a garbage disposal there.

Hoffman has been in the Routt Count Jail on $35,000 bond since his arrest.

To reach Gary E. Salazar call 871-4205 or e-mail gsalazar@amigo.net

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