After more than two years since a fire destroyed one Bushnell restaurant, felony proceedings against the couple accused of setting it have been dismissed.
Ricky J. Roberts, then 37, of Macomb and Allison D. Roberts, then 34, of Bushnell were arrested and charged in September 2011 on charges of aggravated arson and arson in connection with setting fire to the Brickhouse, a restaurant they co-owned with two others at 455 W. Main St. in Bushnell, several months earlier.
The McDonough County State's Attorney's office on Wednesday filed its decision to no longer continue to prosecute the case. James LeFante, defense attorney for Allison, said the state did "the right thing," and that it's his understanding charges will never be refiled.
"Today's dismal of the charges against of Mr. and Mrs. Roberts is a vindication of their innocence," he said in an over-the-phone statement. "The case was dismissed because the state did not believe it could meet its burden (of proof)."
As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, State's Attorney James Hoyle had not responded to The McDonough County Voice's request for comment.
The Brickhouse fire erupted in the early morning hours of March 10, 2011, damaging adjacent buildings and leaving the restaurant itself a complete loss. Investigators in Bushnell believed that the Roberts' set the fire in an attempt to reap insurance money.
One individual had escaped from a nearby apartment during the blaze. Because they could have been harmed, the grand jury in September 2011 upgraded one the charges to aggravated arson, a non-probationable Class X felony with a potential prison sentence between six and 30 years. The other charge of arson is a Class 2 felony that would have carried a three- to seven-year sentence.
Ricky Roberts, according to court documents, had turned himself in upon learning wife, Allison, had been arrested, though LeFante said the two have "always said they had nothing to with this fire."
Immediately following the fire, Bushnell Fire Chief Brent Glisan told the McDonough County Voice that the blaze had "not been ruled suspicious." According to court documents, he would testify the fire in this case was the result of arson, while experts, including James Tunney, with the Illinois State Fire Marshal's Office, noted that causation was unddetermined in nature because of the extent of damage.
LeFante gave credit to the state's attorney for Wednesday's action filing, as well as to Ricky's former defense attorney, John Carter, who removed himself from the case last spring, for seeking to retain another expert witness in September 2012.
A report from the defense's fire investigation expert, which LeFante said was rendered this summer, found the origin of the fire was a high-resistance connection fault, or "essentially" a duplex electoral outlet that had continually operating electrical devices at the time.
Page 2 of 2 - "It took a while because there was a lot of information for the expert to sift through because he had to review everything in the case," the attorney said.
"It's a report from a very qualified expert," LeFante later added. "The guy's got a 50-page resume."
According to the motion and subsequent court order filed Wednesday in McDonough County court, $2,000 of the $7,500 bond posted by Allison and the amount posted by Ricky will be surrendered to the county for court-appointed expert witness fees. The remainder of Allison's fees shall be refunded to her, and Ricky's public defender reimbursement fee shall be waived.
The Voice will continue to update this story if and as more information becomes available.