Mom's St. Paul boyfriend pleads guilty to setting teen on fire

Curtis E. Reed was to go on trial March 19, but his self-defense argument was dealt a setback in January.

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In this file photo from July 22, 2011, Jodi Stewart wiped tears away as her son Antoine Willis spoke to the media from Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Willis suffered second and third degree burns when his mother's boyfriend, Curtis Reed, set him on fire while he was trying to protect his mother from Reed.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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A St. Paul man pleaded guilty Friday to setting his girlfriend's son ablaze in an early morning attack last summer that sent the teen fleeing with a fireball around his head.

Curtis E. Reed, 55, was scheduled to go to trial this month on the first-degree assault charge. But he was dealt a setback in January when Ramsey County District Judge Rosanne Nathanson ruled he could not advance a theory that he was defending himself against a conspiracy.

Bringing other alleged antagonists into the mix was important to Reed's case because a more traditional self-defense argument didn't apply in his case, the judge ruled. The victim, Antoine Willis Jr., then 19, was asleep when Reed lit him on fire.

"This was a senseless and vicious attack on a vulnerable victim," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. "We are pleased that the defendant pled as charged and agreed to an upward durational departure on his sentence."

The plea deal calls for Reed to serve at least 12 years in prison -- or about five years more than under state sentencing guidelines.

According to the charges, Reed and Willis clashed early on July 20 when the teenager tried to break up a fight between his mother and Reed in the family's home on the 1300 block of Ames Avenue.

Willis grabbed Reed around the neck as two friends punched the man. "You guys got me, you guys got me," Reed allegedly said. He then warned: "Don't go to sleep."

A few hours later, Willis awoke to flames on his body. He suffered second- and third-degree burns on his hands, face, neck, torso, scalp and ears.

At a pretrial hearing, Reed's attorney, Tyler Bliss, claimed that the two friends, who left before Willis was set ablaze, had broken Reed's nose. Reed feared that they might return to kill him, Bliss said.

Nathanson, in her ruling, wrote that it "would be an absurd result to allow violent force against a sleeping individual just because the defendant perceived that individual to be a part of a larger conspiracy against him. There is no support in self-defense jurisprudence for such a theory."

Reed is scheduled to be sentenced April 12.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041

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