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Testimony begins in arson trial

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

John Sebeck
Testimony is moving quickly in the jury trial of a Lewis man who allegedly attempted to burn down his ex-wife's home on May 18, 2008.

Six witnesses took the stand in Clay Circuit Court to testify in the arson trial against John Brian Sebeck, 44.

Sebeck's ex-wife Teresa, who admitted two years is a long time to try and remember details, was the first to testify.

After getting off work from her second job at the Clay City Dollar General Store Saturday, May 17, 2008, Teresa said her truck wouldn't start, so a co-worker and friend, Debra Floyd, offered to take her home.

After collecting her purse and a full gas can she was planning to use in the weed-eater, Teresa said they went straight to her residence located at 5200 West County Road 600 South around 9-9:30 p.m.

"It was a red, two-gallon plastic gas can, but it didn't have a cap," Floyd testified. "I even yelled at Teresa and told her to put a rag in the spout so it wouldn't spill over in my car. I saw Teresa set the gas can on the back step of the deck when we got to the house."

Although the couple was divorced in February 2008, Teresa testified she and John had maintained a relationship because he was helping to raise their grandchild and renovating the more than 110-year-old house that is still in both their names.

"Whatever needed to be done around the house, John did it," Teresa said. "John being there wasn't unusual. He was cooking dinner."

When pressed by defense attorney Rowdy Williams, Teresa said the relationship was more.

"I love John," Teresa said, admitting the couple was seeing each other romantically. "Even today, I still love him."

However, that night, Teresa testified John was upset about Debra being at the house. And he became even more upset when Debra asked another friend, William Hampton, to stop by around 10 p.m., for a few drinks around a fire pit in the back yard.

"John expected to spend some time alone," Teresa said. "You could tell he was upset."

That's when the arguing started, according to Teresa, and it continued throughout the night, just out of the sight of Floyd and Williams.

"We were arguing over relationship issues and responsibilities," Teresa said, admitting John shoved her at one point during a heated argument and tried to keep her from leaving the house to go outside. "Debra, who was concerned, called me on her cell phone to check and see if I was alright. I told her to go home that I was OK, but she refused to leave until she could see me."

Floyd said she used her cell phone, but wasn't sure if she called the Sebeck's home phone or Teresa's personal cell phone.

"All I know is I called her," Floyd said. "Teresa said she was OK. I asked her 'Do you need us to come in?' She said she was fine and would be out in a minute."

Floyd described the altercations between the Sebecks as not being fights, but extremely confrontational in nature although John remained quiet and "mellow."

As Floyd left, she testified that Teresa gave her a purse with various important papers, including deeds, birth certificates and her car keys. Floyd told deputy prosecutor Chou-il Lee there was a lot of tension in the air that night and she didn't want to leave.

"I called Bill on the way home," Floyd said. "I asked him if we did the right thing by leaving."

Hampton, who was reluctant to be involved in the investigation or testify in court, agreed the Sebecks were having problems that night.

"Whatever they were talking about, at first, they didn't want people to know about," Hampton said, adding their voices got louder as the arguments continued. "They were going back and forth a lot longer than I wanted to see."

When questioned by Williams about his alleged three-month relationship with Teresa after the fire, Hampton became annoyed and said, "What's that got to do with the fire?"

According to testimony, Floyd and Williams left the house between 1:30-2 a.m., but the arguing didn't stop.

When Teresa told John she was sleeping on the couch, she said John got mad. They argued until Teresa got up and went into the bedroom "to shut him up."

Refusing to have sex, Teresa said John left the room, but came back to tell her "it was over" before leaving the house.

"I went to sleep after he stopped coming in. It was a long night. I was done with everything," said Teresa, who admitted she was frustrated about having extreme financial problems, including being far behind in the mortgage payments, utility bills and the homeowner's insurance bill. "The constant house repairs, the broke down truck, our relationship, the divorce, (taking care of others) and working two jobs to just get by. I was just done with it all. I didn't want to talk about it anymore."

The sound of a fire alarm woke Teresa shortly before 4 a.m.

"I was groggy and didn't know what the sound was," Teresa said. "I opened the door and smoke came in."

When she attempted to call 911, Teresa said the house phone was unplugged. After finding it, she stayed on the line with dispatchers while putting out the fire using a water pitcher and blankets.

Although the homeowner's insurance payment was past due, Teresa testified the insurance company accepted her claim for the fire. However, instead of accepting a cash settlement, Teresa took the option of having her house and personal items cleaned and restored to the condition they were before the fire.

"I'm not leaving the house I've lived in for the past 10 years," she testified. "I've done just as much work on that house as John has. John taught me how."

When asked by the jury how much alcohol was consumed, Teresa admitted she felt intoxicated and thought John was too, Floyd said she had a couple of shots of bourbon brought by Hampton and Hampton said he had four or five beers while sitting around the fire pit.

As testimony in the trial switched over to the investigation into the arson, Williams made it clear to the jury he believed it wasn't done properly.

"Let's be honest and call a spade a spade," Williams told the jury during his opening arguments. "Once you see the lack of evidence/investigation into this case, I believe you will come back with a verdict of not guilty."

Putnam County Sheriff's Department Corporal Jonathan Chadd, who was a deputy with the Clay County Sheriff's Department at the time of the fire, was the first to arrive on the scene. He said the fire was apparently out and Teresa was outside. She had burns on her left arm but refused medical treatment.

Chadd said he talked with Teresa until members of the Cory Volunteer Fire Department arrived on the scene.

"I got about a half-mile down the road when I was called back by firefighters," Chadd said. "I had no reason to investigate the scene before I left, but the firefighters found something suspicious."

Firefighters showed Chadd where rags were stuffed under the siding near the back door and there was a strong smell of gasoline in the air near the house. He notified dispatchers to contact the Indiana State Fire Marshal's Office for a fire investigator and for detectives to arrive on the scene.

Chadd admitted he did not secure the crime scene because fire personnel were still there and it wasn't in his duties as a road deputy. But he did include the fact the wind was blowing away from the house at the time of the fire.

Fire Marshall Freddie Daffer, a 30-year veteran fire investigator, testified that he arrived on the non-secured scene May 19.

"It's our job to arrive with an open mind, starting with the idea that is accidental," Daffer said. "We start at the least amount of burn and work our way to the worst, digging through debris to find the cause."

Daffer said he quickly ruled out the fire pit as a source of the fire due to the fact of its distance away from the home, no visible burn marks on the surrounding ground or trees and an old outhouse blocking the path of embers to get to the house.

While photographing the crime scene, he did locate the residue of a melted gas can near the back door and detect the strong odor of gasoline. There was also no pour marks around the back deck of the house.

During cross-examination by Williams, Daffer admitted to not collecting samples for analysis or lab testing.

Although Williams questioned Daffer's lack of evidence collection, Lee asked how certain the fire marshal was in his assessment of the evidence.

"This was not accidental," Daffer said. "The smell of gas was very detectable. I've been around machines all my life and I know the smell of gas. I'm very sure of my ruling."

Indiana State Police Detective Sam Stearley became aware of the investigation when contacted by CCSD and asked to help interview Teresa because of a conflict of interest. Teresa worked with local law enforcement agencies as part of her job with Child Protective Services.

Stearley testified the "soft interview" was to create a timeline of events leading up to the fire, but Williams wanted to know why she wasn't immediately considered a suspect in the investigation when he asked, "If you'd have known about her financial situation or that the house was under construction, would you have taken a different tone in the interview with Teresa?"

"Yes," Stearley answered, and admitted he did not perform a face-to-face interview with Hampton, did not collect John's clothes for lab testing, attempt to obtain fingerprints from the gas can or visit the crime scene.

Further testimony divulged evidence provided by the insurance company's investigator was never followed up on and Floyd's cell phone records were never acquired.

Meanwhile, Williams pointed out that Stearley asked John numerous times using various interview tactics if he set the fire.

"Each time he denied being involved," Williams said. "Even when you gave him a minimized, sympathetic version or scenario he could admit to, John still said no, didn't he?"

"Yes," Stearley said.

Testimony continues Wednesday in Clay Circuit Court.

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Interesting story. Sad, but interesting.

Sounds to me like the gas can got dumped. With all the emotions running high, somebody could have kicked it over. Without a cap, the rag would have leaked and with a firepit within the back yard, a little wind is all it would take. Gasoline is like that. Under the right conditions it can be lit from a very long distance.

If this man has no prior record of this type of thing or a personality defect that would make him prone to do this type of thing and I were part of the jury, it would be hard to convict. There is way too much reasonable doubt unless Mr. Sebeck would show a real motive for this.

It is unfortunate that they didn't secure the crime scene to preserve the evidence a little better.

-- Posted by TheRider on Wed, Feb 3, 2010, at 10:12 AM

This defense so far has a fairly good reasonable doubt issue going here. Seems the evidence is sketchy at best.

-- Posted by karenmeister on Wed, Feb 3, 2010, at 11:39 AM

I find it hard to accept the 85 days he spent in jail, his lost wages, damage to his reputation and all the mental burden he must have suffered! How do you put a price on your freedom? what is 85 days of hell in the clay county jail worth to an innocent man? I hope the county and state plan to cover attorney fees and compensate this man! The lack of evidence is enough to ask how this man spent 85 days in jail! What made them decide to arrest him months after the fire? Someone owes this man a fraction of his life and if it were me , an apology would not be enough! Congrats John!!! Those who truely know you already knew the verdict!

-- Posted by plumbbum on Thu, Feb 4, 2010, at 2:25 AM

Backwoods, hillbilly policework is about as respectful as this situation allows! (Sorry gran-ma if your reading) These cops had nothing more than a co-worker (that they know personally) point the finger at John. Its understandable why it could of seemed to her at the time of fire, Maybe John did it since they were in an arguement that night. That does not justify his arrest and incarceration! This was an unfortunate accident that almost cost her life that night and almost took the rest of johns life had the detectives and deputies had their way!

-- Posted by plumbbum on Thu, Feb 4, 2010, at 2:37 AM

@ plumbbum.....I don't see where any witness, police or civilian, stated that John did it, only that he was arrested and incarcerated. To me, it appears that what transpired was at the discretion of the prosecuting attorney and also appears to have been a grave error in judgment based on the lack of substantial evidence.

-- Posted by Leo L. Southworth on Fri, Feb 5, 2010, at 1:58 AM

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