St. Paul man gets 12 years for setting teenager on fire

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2012 - 10:55 PM

The victim had been sleeping when his mom's boyfriend sprayed him with lighter fluid and set him ablaze.

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Jodi Stewart and her son Antoine Willis at Regions Hospital soon after the attack.

Photo: Brian Peterson , Star Tribune

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Curtis E. Reed, who set his girlfriend's son ablaze after an early-morning altercation in their St. Paul home last summer, was sentenced Thursday in Ramsey County District Court to 12 years in prison.

The victim, Antoine Willis Jr., then 19, had been asleep when Reed sprayed him with lighter fluid and lit him on fire, authorities say.

Willis ran out of the house with a basketball-size fireball around his head, his mother later told police.

On Thursday, prosecutor Dawn Bakst told District Judge Rosanne Nathanson that Willis had physical and internal scars that Bakst believed he had yet to fully grasp.

"He's afraid to leave the house. He's afraid to take the bus," she said. She described the victim as an adult but still a child in some ways.

Willis attended the sentencing, but did not speak to the judge or with reporters afterward. Though he had scarring on the left side of his neck, he appeared in good physical condition, a dramatic reversal from post-fire images showing him with heavy gauze bandages wrapped around his head.

In a brief statement to the judge, Reed, whose lawyer earlier tried to advance a self-defense argument, said that he was ready to be held accountable for the crime.

"I am terribly sorry," he said as he turned to face Willis. "And I do offer an apology to the family."

According to the charges, Reed, 55, and Willis had clashed about 3 a.m. on July 20 when the teenager tried to break up a fight between his mother and Reed in the family's now-former 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. Several witnesses say Reed then warned: "Don't go to sleep."

Willis tried to stay awake, as a result, with Reed sitting near him, watching him. Just before 7 a.m., Willis was awakened by liquid being poured on his head, and he then felt the fire. He suffered second- and third-degree burns to his hands, face, ears, neck and torso.

At a pretrial hearing, Reed's attorney, Tyler Bliss, argued that Reed was defending himself against a conspiracy involving Willis and his two friends. He claimed that the friends, who left before Willis was set ablaze, had broken Reed's nose. Reed feared that they might return to kill him.

Nathanson rejected that argument, however, saying there was no case law to support such a theory. She 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."

Reed pleaded guilty on March 2 to first-degree assault.

On Thursday, Bliss acknowledged that Reed's actions were "utterly unconscionable." But he told the judge that his client had fallen on hard times, having lost a union job and being in a relationship with a woman -- the victim's mother, Jodi Ann Stewart -- that Bliss said was "mutually combative."

Stewart, who last November pleaded guilty to stealing money donated to her son to help with his recovery, sat behind Willis in the courtroom Thursday. She then accompanied her son and others as they exited the eighth floor of the courthouse.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041

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