It's rare for a prosecutor and defense attorney to agree on a defendant's sentence, and it's rarer still for a judge to reject their joint recommendation. But that's exactly what happened Tuesday in the court of U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez.
He sentenced Alexander Piggee, the troubled 24-year-old who set the blaze that devoured much of Westfield Galleria in Roseville in October, to 15 years in prison. And, he tacked on six years of supervised release. There is no parole in the federal system, and Piggee will do at least 85 percent of the custody time.
Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Steven Lapham and defense lawyer Johnny Griffin III had asked the judge for a 10-year term, but Mendez didn't buy their reasons.
"This has to be one of the most serious if not the most serious arson case that you've prosecuted," Mendez told Lapham, who has a national reputation as an arson and explosives prosecutor. "It certainly is the most serious that I've seen, involving not only economic loss, but the loss of an important piece of the community, at Christmastime no less."
The loss attributed to the Oct. 21 fire is estimated at $55 million to $100 million. Some of the damaged area is under reconstruction.
"But that doesn't take into account how many people were out of work, how many businesses lost money, the fact that he was lucky he didn't kill anybody," the judge noted.
Mendez pointed to a psychiatrist's finding that Piggee faked mental instability when examined early this year. "It's a legitimate diagnoses in every way," the judge said.
"I think this was, in part, driven by drugs, alcohol and an inability to accept responsibility as an adult," Mendez declared. "For all those reasons, the seriousness of the crime, and to protect the public from further crimes, I'm going to impose a sentence" within the advisory guideline range of 14 to 17½ years, which he said "reflects the severity of the offense."
Piggee pleaded guilty in March to the Galleria fire and a smaller fire earlier the same day at an Antelope Walmart.
The real reason the kerosene-soaked backpack the young man carried into the GameStop store was so devastating to the region's largest shopping center remains cloaked in mystery.
In a report issued in December, Roseville said a mall maintenance worker turned off the sprinkler system within 15 minutes of the blaze erupting and it remained off for 71 minutes. The report concluded the worker acted after a UPS driver told him police wanted the water off. Police deny it.
Roseville officials have never identified the mall worker, the UPS driver or the police officers on the scene.
Meanwhile, insurance companies representing dozens of stores have filed claims seeking $23 million in restitution against Placer County, asserting the county, and possibly Roseville, has some culpability. The mall worker is identified in the claims as John McCormick.
Griffin argued Tuesday that Piggee has no criminal history, "was on the right track" until the fires, "going to school, working, a loving son, productive member of society. Although there were some things in his younger days that caused some of what I call mental trauma, he was able to overcome those things and still be productive and function in life."
He said Piggee had "a major falling out with his mother," who kicked him out of her house. "He then found himself homeless, living on the streets. The depression began to set in, and he then began to, in his way, seek help."
He went from one emergency room to another, collecting an array of mind-altering prescription drugs, and started taking them together, Griffin said.
"So, during the time of this offense, he truly, truly was not in his right mind," the lawyer insisted.
Mendez countered that Piggee's substance abuse appears to have been a more significant problem than his mental health and that's not a basis under the guidelines for a reduced sentence.
Lapham told the judge that Piggee does not fit the typical profile of an arsonist.
"Arsonists are usually businessmen and there's usually a profit motive involved," he said. "They're burning down their business or a commercial building for some other reason. They don't have remorse for what they're doing.
"In terms of moral blameworthiness, I think the defendant in this case stands apart. Given the lack of evil motive, given his youth, this is a life that is salvageable. A 10-year sentence is no small price to pay for a person of his age."
Mendez remained implacable. "Maybe 10 years is an awful lot of time to Mr. Piggee, but there aren't very many people that burn down malls. Ten years just doesn't sit well with me."
Piggee told Mendez, "I really don't know where to start. I just want to say I apologize, and I know that's not good enough for you, and to many others that I've affected."