THE ARSONIST WHO WASN'T
Based on the flimsiest of evidence, Ryan Wilson spent 10 months behind bars. A jury acquitted him in less than 10 minutes
There was an arsonist on the loose in the northwest Nassau County town of Hilliard in the early months of 2013, and the police and State Fire Marshal's Office were working mightily to find him. Some of the fires were started in area garages, but most were concentrated in the Eastwood Oaks Apartments on Cody Circle, where at least seven cars had been torched.
The cops had little to go on. And then one day in April, a woman named Wendy Goodman walked into the Nassau County Sheriff's Office with a gift-wrapped suspect whom, she said, had confessed the arsons to her: her ex-boyfriend, Ryan Wilson.
Her statement netted her thousands of dollars in reward money, and she would have raked in thousands more had Wilson been convicted. But he wasn't. Not even close. In fact, after Wilson had spent 10 months in jail awaiting trial, it took a jury less than 10 minutes to declare Wilson not guilty.
Since then, Wilson — who loudly proclaimed his innocence during his incarceration — has gone incommunicado. Meanwhile, NCSO officials say they are dismayed at how the trial played out, the prosecutor is declining, in no uncertain terms, to discuss it, and the state's chief witness is now $6,000 richer, even though jurors apparently didn't believe anything she said.
The case has prompted a lot of unanswered questions, but the verdict, according to assistant public defender Chris Clayton, one of Wilson's attorneys, was hardly a surprise. Fourth Judicial Circuit prosecutors knew what their witnesses were going to say, she says, and they should have known what the outcome would be. And had they not pressed on anyway, Wilson wouldn't have been robbed of nearly a year of his life.
Even the police reports were loaded with inconsistencies and other problems that should have raised red flags. For instance, police reported that Goodman told them Wilson set fire to a bag of potato chips beneath the front of a car in one of the fires at Eastwood Oaks, where Wilson lived. But that same report said that fire marshal's investigators determined the fire was caused by "ordinary combustibles being placed in the passenger compartment."
Nassau County Undersheriff George Lueders says he was not involved in the investigation, but admits the results of the trial are troubling. "Anytime there's that amount of deliberation, it does get your attention," Lueders says, referring to the jury's quick verdict.
Beyond that, it's difficult to get a sense of why police and prosecutors seized on Goodman's statement and took such a weak case to trial. No one wants to talk about it.
When the string of arsons broke out, residents of Eastwood Oaks suspected the culprits were up-to-no-good teenagers. "People were concerned," says apartment manager Anita Higginbotham.
Beyond those suspicions, however, the police didn't have much to go on. Nassau County Sheriff's officials asked the state Fire Marshal's office for help. Crimestoppers, the Florida Division of State Fire Marshal and the owners of Eastwood Oaks all offered rewards for information on the fires.
Wendy Goodman — who could not be located for this story — answered the call. She told police that Wilson said he set the fires as revenge for various slights. She said Wilson was angry with one female victim, another Eastwood Apartments resident because they had been in a minor car accident in 2012 and Wilson was found at fault. That woman's 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier burned in late April 2013. A nearby car, a 2005 Ford Mustang, was also destroyed when the fire spread. Wilson, Goodman told the cops, was still pissed off about being blamed for the accident.
That much, it seems, is true — and Wilson didn't try to hide it.
The NCSO's investigating officer, Josh Bass, who is now with the State Fire Marshal's office, took Goodman's statement and eventually arrested Wilson. Under questioning, Wilson agreed he was angry and "confirmed the grudge between [the victim] and himself. He repeatedly brought up the traffic collision with [the victim] stating she was at fault and he was not," according to the arrest and booking report.
Goodman also told police that Wilson and the arson victim had many confrontations after the crash. At trial, however, the victim testified that she and Wilson got along fine, according to Clayton. (Trial transcripts could not be secured by press time.)
Goodman also told deputies that Wilson was angry because he was being evicted from Eastwood Oaks. That story did have a ring of truth to it, because in 2012, the apartment complex management attempted to evict Wilson and was successful in court. But Wilson didn't end up losing his home, and there was little reason for animosity. Eastwood Oaks' owners discovered that Wilson was in a tough spot — he had suffered an injury to his shoulder at work that required two surgeries, and he was waiting for a workers' comp settlement — and so they struck a deal with him. They agreed to allow him to keep his apartment for minimal payments; once he received the settlement, he would pay the balance.
Higginbotham says Wilson was "paying on it" and had no reason to think he would be evicted. (Higginbotham declined to comment when asked what she told investigators as they gathered evidence for the trial.)
The prosecution, Clayton says, knew all that before the trial. They proceeded anyway.
"My position is that I am not really inclined to comment on this case," says assistant state attorney Stephen Siegel, who tried Wilson. "I don't think there is anything I can say one way or another to justify the prosecution or answer the critics' questions."
Still, Siegel says he went forward in good faith. "As a prosecutor, I believe in a good-faith reasonable expectation of truth and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. What I'm trying to say is that as a prosecutor, you adhere to a standard before you charge someone with a crime."
Asked about the inconsistencies in witnesses' statements from before the trial and then during their actual testimony, Siegel referred questions to Sheriff's Office and Fire Marshal investigators.
Clayton says she felt terrible for her client, and was glad news of his acquittal would be made public soon. She says that he suffered while he was in jail because he was not allowed to get rehabilitation for his shoulder, which he needed after the surgeries. Even going to court was excruciating because he had to wear a coat.
"He had trouble putting on his coat, it was hurting so bad," Clayton says.
Perhaps the most painful, or poignant, moment for her happened when the verdict was read. "He just broke down and cried," Clayton says. "It was the saddest thing I have ever seen."
Folio Weekly was unable to locate Ryan Wilson for comment for this story. Some acquaintances say that after he was acquitted, he bought a plane ticket and flew to New York to stay with relatives. Others say he's still in the Nassau County area.
"He's with his people," Wilson's aunt, Ruthie Mae Brown, says. "I don't know. He might be in Fernandina Beach, but I know they [Eastwood Oaks management] put his stuff out on the street."
Brown says she and Wilson, her deceased sister's son, did not get along because of a long-standing feud, but she is glad he was found not guilty. "Yeah, I'm glad he got off, and though he don't get along with me, the jury found him not guilty. I agree he was railroaded, but the law is the law."
While the jury's lightning-fast repudiation was no doubt embarrassing for the prosecutors and police who sought to put Wilson behind bars for as much as 30 years, Undersheriff Lueders points out that after Wilson's arrest, the arsons stopped. "That's one thing that's interesting," he says.
The police, Lueders adds, consider the case dormant. They're not looking for other suspects. "There's not really anything we can do about it," he says. Moreover, neither the sheriff's office nor prosecutors are investigating whether Goodman's testimony constituted perjury.
Higginbotham says Eastwood Oaks residents were stunned at the verdict, and began to wonder again if someone is still out there waiting to set more fires.
"Really, people were surprised when we found out it wasn't Ryan," Higginbotham says. "They're, like, ‘If he didn't do it, who did it? Is this going to happen again?'"