Man gets eight years for arson

Fire started to cover up burglary

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— John Matthew Hoffman's decision to throw a match on the 10 gallons of gasoline he had poured throughout a Steamboat Springs townhome in August earned him eight years in prison on Friday.

The fire was started intentionally in the early morning hours of Aug. 28 to cover up a burglary at The Ridge townhomes near the ski area. The blaze caused an estimated $2 million in damage to 10 townhome units. More than a dozen people were evacuated but no one was hurt in the fire.

District Judge Joel S. Thompson sentenced Hoffman to prison.

"This is outrageous behavior," the judge said to the 20-year-old Ohio man. "This is something that rarely happens in this community."

Hoffman received the eight-year prison term for his guilty plea to first-degree arson. He also received four years in prison each for guilty pleas to second-degree burglary and first-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft.

Thompson could have sentenced Hoffman to a prison term of up to 24 years for each offense, all of which are class-three felonies.

Hoffman also was sentenced to four years in prison for a guilty plea to felony theft and six months in the Routt County Jail for a misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment.

"All these sentences will run at the same time, so essentially you will serve eight years in prison," Thompson said. "I don't want to make it too long. I want you to have hope and to take advantage of the programs offered in prison."

After he gets out of prison, Hoffman will spend at least five years on parole. He also was ordered to pay restitution for the damage the fire caused.

Thompson sent Hoffman to prison even though the young man did not have a prior criminal history, except for a minor juvenile offense.

"Anything but a prison sentence would under-appreciate what happened," Thompson said. "What bothers me most is you placed residents in the condos at great risk. It troubles me that risk didn't stop you."

The fire, which destroyed two townhomes and damaged eight others, caused authorities to evacuate 16 people, including three adult children of the late Doak Walker.

In court Friday, Hoffman briefly apologized for his actions.

"I just want to say that I did have concern for the people in the condos," he said in a quiet voice. "Now that I think back about it, I would not have done it."

Hoffman set fire to a unit in the eight-unit building to cover up a burglary he had committed the day before.

During the burglary, he stole a Chevrolet Suburban belonging to the unit's owner, Robert Egizii of Illinois. He put the stolen items in the vehicle and drove it to a retail parking lot. The vehicle was recovered by police the day of the fire.

After committing the burglary and stealing the vehicle, Hoffman bought two five gallon gasoline tanks, filled them up with gas and returned to the townhome.

Hoffman obtained keys to the townhome and the suburban while he was installing a garbage disposal in the unit. He took the keys from a kitchen drawer while working for Scott Barnes Plumbing.

Deputy District Attorney Charles Feldmann argued Hoffman should serve at least 10 years in prison.

"This was not a little campfire or prank," the prosecutor said.

Feldmann argued that Hoffman thoughtfully devised a plan to cover up a burglary.

"He spent time at this unit," Feldmann said. "He knew people were coming and going there. He chose to dump 10 gallons of gas in a building where he knows other people are sleeping.

"This is just a true miracle that there was not a loss of life. This was not a quick childhood loss of judgment. This was a thought-out, premeditated plan."

Feldmann argued the fire not only put the evacuated people at risk but also the firefighters who responded.

"This was a very serious crime that had the potential to hurt a lot of people," he said.

Hoffman's attorney, Norm Townsend, admitted a prison term was inevitable but argued for a sentence that would allow his client to get on with his life.

"There is no excuse for what happened," Townsend said. "For some reason, he lost his morals when he came here. This was his first opportunity away from home. The values his family instilled in him were lost on him for some time."

Townsend said a prison term between six and eight years was appropriate.

"He has taken responsibility for what he did," he said. "He could have hid behind extradition laws in Ohio. He came back. He readily admitted to what he did the first time he was asked about it.

"Regardless of what the court does, his life is not over. Hopefully, he can take advantage of programs in prison. He has to put his life back together. This is a sad case. This is a young man who had everything going for him. He had everything in front of him."

Hoffman was arrested by Steamboat Springs police on Sept. 26 after he had agreed to return from Ohio to discuss the July theft of two wooden signs, worth $5,000 each, that welcome visitors to the city.

The signs were recovered Sept. 7. at Hoffman's former apartment at the D Bark K Motel, 35495 U.S. 40. After the arson, Hoffman had gone back to Ohio. Police contacted him there and asked him to come back to Steamboat to talk about the sign theft.

During his interview with police, Hoffman confessed to stealing the signs and committing the burglary and arson. In exchange for Hoffman's guilty pleas to the other charges, Feldmann dismissed a felony theft charge for stealing the signs.

Although Hoffman knows how much time he faces behind bars, how much he owes in restitution has yet to be determined.

Steamboat Springs Fire Marshall Jay Muhme, who investigated the fire, testified Friday that preliminary damage assessment is about $2.2 million.

"I don't know if that is just for the damage to the structure or it includes personal belongings," said Muhme, who was the only witness called to testify.

Thompson has set a restitution hearing for 11 a.m. April 6, even though it is unlikely Hoffman will be able to pay for the damage he caused.

"It is extremely unlikely you will be able to ever pay the victims," Thompson said.

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