DARLINGTON — The question in Lafayette County Circuit Court was not whether Armin G. Wand III and his brother, Jeremy, would get life sentences for the three first-degree intentional homicide charges on which they pleaded guilty.
The question was whether Green County Circuit Judge Thomas Vale would set a parole eligibility date — the minimum is 20 years according to state law — or require that either remain in prison the rest of his life.
On April 17, Armin Wand was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
On Thursday, Jeremy Wand was sentenced to life in prison, but with parole eligibility in 34 years — 35 years after he was arrested last Sept. 8.
In addition to the life sentences, Wand was sentenced to 35 years in prison and 20 years extended supervision for attempted first-degree intentional homicide, 25 years in prison and 15 years extended supervision for arson, and 25 years in prison and 15 years extended supervision for felony murder, with all sentences to be served concurrently,
The charges were in connection with the Sept. 7 Argyle house fire that killed Wand’s three sons — Allen, 7, Jeffery, 5, and Joseph, 3 — and the Wands’ unborn child, and injured Wand’s wife, Sharon, and daughter, Jessica, 2.
“There are differences between you and your brother,” said Vale at Jeremy Wand’s sentencing Thursday afternoon, after Vale denied Wand’s motion to change his guilty plea that morning. “In this court’s mind, this never happens without Armin’s leading the way.”
Vale compared Jeremy Wand to soldiers committing atrocities by “just following orders” or members of gangs “so desperate to belong and have the approval of someone.”
Vale also said, however, that “It doesn’t get any worse than this, and that is the overriding consideration in any sentence this court imposes.”
Wand’s sentencing ended a day that began when Vale denied Jeremy Wand’s motion to change his plea from guilty back to not guilty.
Wand’s attorney, Frank Medina, said the motion was based on “questions here that could be addressed preferably by a jury … in view of new evidence and new circumstances.”
The “new” was statements by Sharon Wand, Armin’s former wife, about the night of the house fire and whether she remembered Jeremy’s being at their house when she awoke to the fire, as well as pending criminal charges against her (see story, page 2A).
“She’s made various other statements to reporters and newspapers and so forth … the fact is she’s not sure she saw him there or she didn’t see him there, and there’s no evidence of any wrongdoing,” said Medina.
Assistant Attorney General Roy Korte called it “a little improbable to take that position when other people, including the defendant, place himself at the scene.” Korte said statements by both Wands to state Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation special agents placed both of them in the house to start the fire. Korte added the neighbor who witnessed Armin Wand try to put Jessica Wand back in the house, as well as a witness who saw him wearing a shirt photographed later that day by Argyle High School video, and another witnesses who said he “smelled of smoke” the day after the fire.
Wand testified to a question from Medina that “You kept on telling me that this was the best chance that I was going to get,” and added, “I don’t believe all the witnesses of the prosecution are being totally honest.”
When Korte asked “what new facts have occurred since the plea hearing to today,” Wand answered, “stuff that agents have done” and “Sharon’s recantation.”
Korte said that charges pending against Sharon Wand are “not admissible, and that would not have been admissible had we proceeded to trial.”
Vale said the motion was made the day before Wand was to be sentenced July 19, and that the writer of the presentence investigation “recommended life with no parole.”
On Thursday afternoon, Korte and witnesses spent two hours going over evidence in the case.
State assistant fire marshal William Boswell said a U.S. Justice Department electrical engineer found “no electrical sources that were causal to the fire.” Boswell introduced police car dash-cam video of the fire, as well as photo evidence from inside the house of fire marks, burn damage and two smoke detectors, neither of which had batteries.
DCI special agent Jim Sielehr testified about where Armin and Jeremy Wand placed marks on a diagram of the house as to who set which fire. Sielehr said Jeremy Wand closed the door to Allen and Jeffery’s bedroom “so the boys couldn’t come out.”
The last testimony came from Sharon Wand, who read a half-hour-long statement. Similar to the statement at Armin Wand’s sentencing, Sharon talked about her boys, but added details of Jeremy’s life with them and how often he stayed with the Wands.
“Jeremy, you taught Allen how to ride a bike,” she said. “He loved to play basketball with you. …
“You helped teach Jeffrey his colors and letters. …
“Once Jeremy would leave here Jo Jo would cry for him to come back. …
“Jessica does not realize her brothers are gone forever. …
“I really believed you loved the boys. … My boys looked up to you as a role model. … You were not just an uncle. You sat at our table, ate our food. You were our family.
“Now I don’t know how to feel about you. I still love you, but I hate you for what you did. You have ruined so many lives, including yours.”
When Vale asked Sharon Wand if Jeremy should have any hope at parole, she said, “I really don’t know. He really is a good guy, and I think about him any time I think of my kids. If he can change his ways, I think he can do it.”
Jeremy Wand made no statement before sentencing, and Medina introduced no witnesses.
“We do know, tragically, that the boys did suffer … and that their uncle participated knowingly in setting the fires,” said Korte, who argued for life without possibility of parole. “What may be the mitigating factors pale in comparison to what this man did to three innocent little children and Sharon. … No reasonable person sets fires in a room where people are sleeping and does not expect that people will die.”
Medina called the deaths a “heinous offense,” then said, “No one has asked, Who’s Jeremy Wand?”
Medina portrayed Jeremy Wand as controlled by his older brother: “He would do anything for Armin. … He had no way to check what Armin told him, or told him to do; he just did it. … When you have somebody like Armin around, you do what he tells you to do; you don’t know how rational he is. … He’s culpable, but he doesn’t have the same culpability that Armin had.”
Afterward, Medina said about his client, “It’s not easy getting through sometimes. He’s not disabled, but he has his way of looking at things, which I think is down to lack of experience. You have to explain things over and over, and then you have to explain it again.”
“It’s a life sentence, and as the judge stated, it’s simply parole eligibility,” said Korte afterward. “It’s certainly not automatic.
“You sit there and listen to Sharon and what she went through and what she did to try to save her kids. Justice has been done as seen fit by the court. He may or may not ever see the light of day, and he will have to live with what he did for the rest of his life.”