61-year-old East St. Louis woman sentenced for starting fatal fire

Janice L. Richardson
Janice L. Richardson

An East St. Louis woman had already pleaded guilty and prosecutors agreed on a sentence of 5 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter because she had set a fire that caused a death at the Orr-Weathers housing complex last year.

The question before Judge Zina Cruse on Thursday afternoon was only to sentence Janice Richardson for another charge, aggravated arson.

"I have to remind myself I'm not sentencing you for the death" of Arthur Jefferson on July 26, 2017, the judge said.

Richardson, 61, was ultimately sentenced to 10 years for aggravated arson, to be served at 85 percent, which will be served concurrently with the previously agreed-upon five years for involuntary manslaughter. A charge of first-degree murder was dismissed in exchange for the plea.

Cruse noted Richardson's lack of criminal history and letters and statements from friends and family, including courtroom testimony from her son, Melvin Willis, who was dressed in white from his wedding earlier Thursday.

Their statements moved Cruse from the higher end of a 15-year sentence, she said, but a man had died from the fire Richardson started.

"At your age ... what were you thinking?" Cruse asked.

At the hearing Thursday, Assistant State's Attorney Dorothy Martucci said Richardson started the fire because she was angry at a neighbor. Richardson had been helping the neighbor move and expected to be paid. When she didn't get paid, she set fire to the couch.

"There are 95 units in that building" with people of all ages and abilities living there, Martucci said. "Every one of those lives was in danger."

Richardson addressed the victim's family and the judge when given an opportunity to make a statement.

"I'm so sorry," she told the victim's brother. "Artie was my friend, too. ... I didn't have any idea he was gone until late that next day."

Janice Richardson set a couch and table on fire in the hallway of the fourth floor in building E-2, officials previously said.

Jefferson, the man who died, lived on the other end of the hallway from the fire that was set at about 2 a.m. on July 26, 2017. Two residents were injured, and all 91 residents of the building were evacuated for at least two hours.

Mary Cooley: 618-239-2535, @MaryCooleyBND