A Lewis man found not guilty of arson charges a little more than a year ago was ordered to pick up the tab for his intentional negligence in a residential fire at his ex-wife's house in 2008.
Appearing for a court trial before Clay Superior Court Judge J. Blaine Akers Thursday, John Brian Sebeck, 44, acted as his own attorney and presented no evidence and declined to testify on his own behalf during a civil lawsuit brought by Indiana Farm Bureau.
The insurance company filed the lawsuit on behalf of its client Teresa Sebeck, whose home was damaged in the fire.
According to court documents, shortly before 4 a.m., May 18, 2008, Teresa Sebeck was awakened by a smoke alarm inside her home at 5200 West County Road 600 South. Although Teresa was able to almost put the fire out before emergency personnel arrived on the scene, the rear interior and exterior part of her home was damaged by fire and other areas sustained heavy smoke, heat and water damage.
Because of the suspicious nature of the fire, the Clay County Sheriff's Department requested the assistance of the Indiana State Police and the Indiana State Fire Marshal's Office in the investigation, which was ruled arson.
Attorney Michelle Cobourn-Baurley told the court during her opening statement John and Teresa Sebeck continued their relationship even after they were divorced in Feb. 2008. But when the couple argued and Teresa refused to continue her involvement in the stressful relationship on May 17, John got mad.
"When Teresa wouldn't give him what he wanted, when she said 'No it's over,' John Sebeck got angry," Coburn-Baurley said. "So angry, he set fire to her house with her inside."
While Sebeck stood trial for criminal allegations of his involvement in the fire at his wife's home in Feb. 3, 2009, the jury was unable to find Sebeck "guilty of each element of the crime charged, beyond a reasonable doubt."
According to Coburn-Baurley, the plaintiff provided enough evidence that Sebeck exhibited motive, presence and opportunity as well as suspicious behavior after the fire that showed a fair preponderance of evidence he was guilty.
"According to Indiana Courts, the burden of proof is much lower in civil matters than criminal cases," Coburn-Baurley said during her closing arguments. "It is not necessary to be freed from all doubt, (a case) can be decided on whose side the weight of evidence preponderates and reasonable probability of truth. It was ruled out that there was no mystery person, no floating spark, no lightning strike in this case, the evidence shows that it's more than likely than not, that John Sebeck set this fire."
As with the rest of the trial, Sebeck did not provide the court with a closing statement, except to say he did not set fire to the house and was already proven innocent of arson charges.
Akers, who reminded Sebeck he could only consider credible evidence and testimony presented in the case, said the only evidence he could consider was that provided by the plaintiff.
"And I believe they met that burden," Akers said before finding Sebeck legally and financially responsible for the damage done by the fire, which totaled $61,138.56 (plus court costs).
Sebeck was notified of his right to appeal the case, but Akers recommended he seek the advice of a private attorney for the proper procedures to file the written motion necessary for the paperwork. If Sebeck was determined to be indigent, Akers said help to obtain free legal services was a possibility.
The next phase in the proceedings, according to Akers, Sebeck would be notified about his assets and ability to pay the judgment.
After the proceedings, Teresa Sebeck spoke briefly with The Brazil Times. While she was very disappointed with the way the previous criminal case was handled and the subsequent outcome, Teresa said she felt better about this case, but was too emotional to make an official statement.
During her testimony in the court proceedings, an emotional Teresa said, "I would have never believed my John, the man I married, would ever hurt me. I didn't hate John then, and I don't hate him now. The man there that night, he wasn't my John."