An East Side man set fire to the house, then tried to douse it with a garden hose.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- As soon as 66-year-old Alexander Webster set the fire, he knew he shouldn't have.
The house, directly next to his on Ayers Street, had become a hotbed of drug activity in the East Side neighborhood known by drug dealers as La La Land, and Webster couldn't take it any more.
In November, he poured a mixture of gasoline and kerosene around the bottom of the house, dropped a match on it and started to run away. He told police later that he only wanted to disable the house so drug dealers couldn't live there.
"I had to do what I had to do," he said in a police report.
Change of heart: But when he saw the fire take off, Webster's conscience got the better of him.
"This was a man who for 66 years had never done anything wrong to get into trouble with the law," said Webster's attorney, Ronald Yarwood.
Webster grabbed a garden hose, turned on the water and started trying to put out the fire he'd just started. He was still there when police and firefighters arrived.
To his neighbors, Webster was a hero for trying to rid the neighborhood of drug dealers, Yarwood said.
"But when he looked at me and said that what he did was wrong, when he stepped up to take responsibility, that's when he became a hero in my eyes," Yarwood said.
A Mahoning County grand jury indicted Webster on a charge of aggravated arson, a first-degree felony for which he could have gone to prison for up to 10 years.
As part of a plea agreement, the charge was amended to arson, a fourth-degree felony, to which Webster pleaded guilty in March.
On Wednesday, Judge James C. Evans of common pleas court gave Webster the shortest possible sentence of one year's probation and a lecture about vigilante justice.
"We can't take the law into our own hands, even in times of high emotion," the judge said, eliciting nods of affirmation from Webster.
Webster apologized to the judge, police and fire department.
"I made a terrible mistake," he said. "I want to live the rest of my life in honor and peace."
Under watch: Jay Macejko, assistant prosecutor, said the house was under surveillance by the Mahoning County Drug Task Force for possible drug activity. Several members of the Ayers Street Playas, a Bloods-affiliated gang that frequently visited the house, have since been indicted on charges of drug trafficking and criminal gang activity.
"The whole theme here is that you can't take the law into your own hands," Macejko said. "He should have trusted in the police department and let the system work."
The prosecutor's office did not oppose the minimum sentence.
Webster, married 44 years, could still have gone to prison for up to 18 months on the reduced charge, but Yarwood said that would have been too much.
"He's a convicted felon for the rest of his life," Yarwood said. "For a man who's lived his life the way he has, that in itself is punishment enough."