By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Arsonist gets year in work release program
20-year-old set fire to stepmothers house in 2008
Placeholder Image

In 2008, a teenage Samuel Wardlaw set fire to his stepmother's Gainesville home.

Early Thursday morning, Wardlaw sat in a Hall County Superior Court courtroom facing a maximum sentence of more than 50 years in prison.

After hearing testimony from both sides of the case, Superior Court Judge Andrew Fuller gave Wardlaw what some may consider to be a light sentence - one year in the Hall County Work Release Program, two years of house arrest and 25 years on probation.

"The crime you committed is extremely serious. It is considered to be one of the more serious crimes in this state because it usually results in serious injury or death," Fuller said.

"The sentence I impose today is sure to be perceived by many public safety officers to not take into consideration the dangers they face each day."

Fuller explained to the courtroom that he considered several mitigating factors in deciding Wardlaw's sentence - including the fact that he has no prior criminal history and he also is on several medications and a treatment program to control his mental issues.

According to adjusters with the company that insured the property, more than $1.5 million in damages were paid out because of the intentionally set fire.

During sentencing, Fuller stipulated that Wardlaw make full restitution to the insurance company, to the tune of $1,569,905.50.

"It's required by law for the court to mandate full restitution," said Vanessa Sykes, Hall County assistant district attorney.

"But (Wardlaw) will be reviewed on his ability to repay the full amount."

While the average person may not be able to repay $1.5 million, the requirement must go into the official record of the case - just in case a defendant's earnings improves greatly, Sykes said.

The home that the now 20-year-old Wardlaw set on fire belonged to his then stepmother Rita Meeks Wardlaw, who lived in Florida with her then husband - Wardlaw's father, David Wardlaw. The couple used the Gainesville house as a second home and it was unoccupied when the fire was set. They are now divorced.

According to fire officials, more than 20 firefighters battled the blaze at the home on Little River Drive in Gainesville.

"There were six points of origin inside and outside the home. There were fires set in multiple rooms, in multiple levels of the home," testified Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell.

"Whenever there are multiple points of origin for a fire, that poses a severe hazard for firefighters
because they could get trapped inside the home."

At the time of the fire, Wardlaw's mother - Leslie Reed - and his father had been divorced for several years.

"(Wardlaw) had a 4.0 GPA until the day of our divorce," Reed said.

"He has a huge heart and feels things very deeply. We both had difficulties with (handling the divorce)."

A number of the more than 30 supporters who packed the courtroom to support Wardlaw testified to seeing a change in him after the divorce was final.

Medical officials testified that something may have "snapped" in Wardlaw and influenced his decision to set the blaze.

According to Gainesville psychologist Guy Jordan, during mental evaluations just weeks before the fire, Wardlaw displayed "pre-schizophrenic thinking and severe anxiety." Jordan also testified Wardlaw was severely depressed.

Wardlaw's symptoms are now under control with the medication and Fuller stipulated that he continue with his prescriptions and treatment plan as a condition of his sentencing.