Owner of Lake Lillian liquor store sentenced for setting it ablaze

WILLMAR -- The woman accused of setting fire to her Lake Lillian business, K & M Liquor Store, was sentenced Thursday to three years of probation and ordered to pay about $30,857 of restitution on a charge of felony third-degree arson.

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WILLMAR - The woman accused of setting fire to her Lake Lillian business, K & M Liquor Store, was sentenced Thursday to three years of probation and ordered to pay about $30,857 of restitution on a charge of felony third-degree arson.

  Mary Sue Whitcomb, 52, of rural Atwater, was also sentenced Thursday to 90 days of jail and ordered to pay a $500 fine. Provided she makes an immediate restitution payment, Whitcomb will serve only seven of those days. She is eligible for work release.

The maximum sentence she could have received on the arson charge was five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both.

Whitcomb entered an Alford plea on the arson charge in June, meaning she does not admit guilt but acknowledges that evidence likely to be offered by the prosecution at trial is enough for a jury to likely render a guilty verdict. The plea is recorded as a guilty plea.



As the result of the plea agreement, Whitcomb received a stay of imposition on the felony charge, meaning it may be reduced to a misdemeanor conviction on her record if she successfully completes probation. 


A felony charge of insurance fraud also was dismissed as part of the agreement. 


The fire at the liquor store occurred in September 2013 and destroyed the business. The criminal complaint alleges that Whitcomb left about 15 minutes before a Lake Lillian resident reported seeing smoke. 


A fire marshal’s investigation concluded that the fire originated in a first-floor bathroom and was deliberately set. The investigation also revealed that the business was losing money and that Whitcomb tried unsuccessfully to sell it. Court documents say that after the fire, Whitcomb submitted a claim to her insurance company for losses and damages totaling $75,305. 



During Thursday’s sentencing hearing, both the Kandiyohi County Attorney’s Office and Whitcomb’s attorney, Steven Foertsch, recommended no executed jail time. 


Foertsch argued that Whitcomb should serve no jail time because she has shown responsibility by agreeing to pay timely restitution. 


“What this shows is that (Whitcomb) is willing to take responsibility for her end of the deal,” Foertsch said. 


Foertsch also acknowledged that Whitcomb does not to admit guilt in the case and planned to go to trial before she entered into the plea agreement that was “too good to pass up.” 



He said the defense planned to have its own fire investigator and witnesses testify at trial. He claimed that the fire marshal who examined Whitcomb’s business might have exhibited confirmation bias because of knowledge that the business was closing and had limited inventory. 


Before pronouncing Whitcomb’s sentence, Judge Jennifer Fischer addressed Foertsch’s remarks. Fischer said she understood Foertsch’s argument, but said Whitcomb’s reasoning behind entering her guilty plea is irrelevant to the court at sentencing. 


“I can’t go into sentencing with a mindset that ‘She didn’t do it’. You pleaded guilty. That’s the trouble with an Alford plea. While you’re maintaining your innocence, I consider you guilty, as does the rest of the world.” 


Whitcomb chose not to make any remarks during the sentencing hearing.

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