BOISE - A judge's ruling Thursday found a Boise man guilty of setting fire to a murder victim's home, but Steven Eugene Roberts III will go back to prison as the only man who knows why.
For these crimes of which he was convicted, we really don't have a clear motive, said Prosecuting Attorney Kai Wittwer.
During a three-day court trial that ended Thursday with convictions for arson and burglary, Wittwer instead focused on the tangibles: Roberts' blood on the floor and wall, his unexplained disappearances that night and a documented penchant for serious crime.
Despite the burglary charge, Roberts didn't steal anything from the house, and there was no evidence that he was seeking to cover up another crime or exact revenge.
The arson for which he was convicted came just a month after 74-year-old Phyllis Ward was found beaten to death inside the Boise Bench home on July 23, 2012. The house was on fire when emergency responders arrived, but police say Roberts is not connected to that case.
The murder is still unsolved.
Forty days later, Ward's Randolph Drive home was on fire again. This time, attention turned to the 43-year-old Roberts, a parolee who skipped town after the fire. He was arrested more than a year later in Louisiana.
Fire investigators say someone broke a window to get into the house, then turned on the valve to a barbecue propane tank and poured accelerant around the property before torching it in the early hours of Sept 1, 2012.
Blood found smeared on the wall near the broken window and dripped onto the floor was a DNA match to Roberts.
But the suspect argued in court that he had no idea who started the fire. He said he was walking with other people near the home when he tripped and fell against the window, breaking it and cutting his arm. After the fall, he said, his companions lifted him into the home in an attempt to get him off the window.
He said he climbed back out - after inadvertently smearing blood onto the wall - and continued on his way, implying someone else must have come along and set the fire.
Judge Steven Hippler was not convinced, and neither was Wittwer, who called the explanation sheer absurdity and a real whopper of a story.
A friend testified he and Roberts went out to bars less than a mile from Ward's home that night, and Roberts vanished several times. During the last disappearance, he was gone for two hours, re-emerging at a strip club with an unexplained cut on his arm at about 4 a.m.
That was roughly the same time neighbors noticed the fire and called 911. Roberts had borrowed
a car that night and had more than enough time to get to Ward's home and back, Wittwer said.
But defense attorney Robert Chastain argued prosecutors needed more to prove Roberts guilty.
This is a case about association, not causation, he said.
Chastain said that although Roberts was at the home the night of the arson, there was no
evidence that he set it: there were no fingerprints and no blood found on the gas cans used to spread the fire.
At best, they have him at the scene, he said. Merely being present at the scene of the crime
doesn't make anybody guilty of anything.
But Hippler sided with the prosecution, finding Roberts guilty of first-degree arson, burglary and a persistent violator sentencing enhancement that could qualify him for life in prison. Roberts has previous felony convictions for grand theft, burglary and aggravated assault in Idaho and unlawful driving or taking a vehicle in California.
He is scheduled for sentencing Aug. 19.