Burning Sensei-tion: A Cadre of Karate Instructors Make the Stupidest Decision of Their Lives and Wind Up Dead or Facing Prison Time
Twenty gallons of gasoline were poured into a 400-square-foot room.
The pungent liquid soaked the floor, desk, and computer inside the small office. It was about 12:30 a.m. on the cool Sunday morning of June 14, and the room was dark. Josh Robinson stood amid the puddles, awash in fumes. One of his partners in crime waited outside the second-floor window on top of a wooden, latticework awning. Two others had climbed down already.
The 28-year-old Robinson then made the mistake that would cost him his life. He struck a match.
New Times feature
The detonation briefly turned night into day. A fireball engulfed the room and the man inside. A surveillance camera hooked up to a motion detector down the hall blinked on and off in the moments after the ignition, recording slightly more than four seconds of video.
Across the street, a group of women stood and stared. They had been chatting in the driveway of a house a moment earlier when the crinkle of broken glass caught their attention. The mixed residential-and-business neighborhood near 40th Street and Baseline Road in Phoenix was usually quiet at that time of night. A minute later, they heard more breaking glass and an alarm. The homeowner, her daughter, and a friend moved to get a better view of the two-story structure, which they mistook for an apartment complex in the dim light. Actually, it was the headquarters of Young Champions of America, a national business that teaches such activities as karate, soccer, and cheerleading to kids.
As they watched, flames erupted from the structure. One of the women called 911.
The flashover fire spread quickly across the second floor and up to the roof. To their horror, the women saw the figure of a man stumble out of the inferno.
"They could see the whole body was in flames, and he was kind of waving his hands around," a police report of the incident states. He began rolling over and over on top of the awning for what seemed like "forever" to the witnesses.
The homeowner's daughter grabbed a T-shirt from her mother and dashed across 40th Street to the raging fire.
Another section of the erratic video shows two of the burning man's buddies trying to pat out the flames just before he falls from the platform. The camera didn't record much else.
Robinson's head smacked the ground hard, but it didn't matter much by then. His hair and clothing had been mostly seared off his charred body, and he'd inhaled a fatal amount of smoke.
As the building fire raged, the young woman approached the arsonist's body, which was still burning. She used the T-shirt to dab at the flames on the victim. Before the first fire truck arrived, she saw a "redheaded woman" standing by her side, recounts Phoenix Fire Department Captain Marika McCue, who helped conduct the investigation.
"Do something!" the redhead screamed hysterically.
"I am doing something!" the homeowner's daughter shouted.
The first firefighters at the scene, records state, saw two women — neither of them a redhead — patting flames on the victim. The burned man was dead. Firefighters broke through a first-floor door that led into a warehouse space, thinking they could save one side of the structure. "However, the fire traveled exceedingly fast, and they were forced to abandon the interior of the building," the report states.
The fire gutted the company's offices and warehouse, ruining equipment and destroying many years' worth of memorabilia.
The witness never saw the redhead again, and McCue was unable to find any trace of her during months of investigation.
McCue's best guess is that the traumatic events distorted the witness' memory. The "redheaded woman," McCue believes, was actually 20-year-old Jonathan Antonucci, one of Robinson's known accomplices in the fire.
Antonucci pleaded guilty in October to arson and manslaughter, which allowed him to escape getting tried for first-degree murder (anyone helping to carry out a crime in which a death occurs is subject to Arizona's felony-murder rule). But in a jailhouse interview with New Times, Antonucci denied he was at the scene as Robinson lay dying. He didn't know what happened to his best friend, he claims, because he ran away from him and the other arsonists seconds after "the incident" began.
His version is hard to believe, based on the evidence. And, as his former employers note, he's got a reputation as a liar and a cheat.
To dozens of Valley kids, he was "Sensei Jon": tall, lean, ambitious, and charismatic, the eldest son of a Baptist preacher, a talented and popular karate instructor.
But Sensei Jon, even as he preached about Jesus and the ethics that went along with martial arts, had joined the dark side. He would become a thief and a schemer. It doesn't seem a stretch to imagine that the plan to torch the building was hatched by Antonucci, who had been stealing thousands of dollars from Young Champions and already had started his own karate company for kids.
Antonucci blames most everything on the dead Robinson.
Whoever was most responsible, the June arson fire was surely a first-class betrayal. The culprits were some of the very same "young champions" who had grown up with the firm. Authorities believe Antonucci and Robinson had hoped to destroy evidence of their embezzlement from the company.
"That's what hurts the most," says Rory Hood, the company's president. "These were students of this organization."
The four friends had all worked as karate instructors, teaching children and teens in the evenings or on weekends at schools and churches. Robinson and Antonucci sometimes helped out at the main office (which didn't host classes).
Young Champions of America employs about 25 instructors at a time in the Valley, including some who teach multiple classes per night. Parents can pay a smaller fee per class rather than for a set number of weeks, which is one way the company meets its goal of providing youth classes to lower-income families.
Each instructor must find and retain students in their classes, and Robinson and Antonucci — both lively and engaging as teachers — were among the most successful.
Robinson had started taking karate lessons when he was 7 years old from Kraig Hollingworth, now the company's vice president. Except during a brief stint in the Marine Corps, Robinson had always been affiliated with Young Champions either as student or employee.
Antonucci had attended the company's karate classes as a youngster in Colorado and hooked up with the local chapter when his family moved to Phoenix. Both he and Robinson occasionally went to Hollingworth's house to play video games and socialize.
Moniza Murillo, 21, also had come of age with the firm, starting as karate student and advancing to rookie teacher. She lived in a mobile home with her parents and another family while attending Estrella Community College just before her arrest. She took her first Young Champions class at age 10.
The fourth person arrested in connection with the arson, Jeffrey Otto, 20, began taking classes in his mid-teens from Robinson and had assisted as an instructor during the year before the fire.
The three surviving suspects were charged with first-degree murder in addition to arson. Only Otto has maintained his not-guilty plea and held out for trial. Murillo copped a plea in August and has reportedly agreed to testify against Otto, if he doesn't change his mind and admit involvement in the arson.
Antonucci's plea deal, meanwhile, calls for between seven and 21 years in prison. He's scheduled to be sentenced in March. Murillo's sentence will depend on how much she helps prosecutors in Otto's trial, if there is one.
None of them had ever been in trouble with the law before, as far as New Times could tell through public records and interviews.
Ironically, the instruction given by Young Champions employees, whether in karate or other classes, typically includes character lessons, as well as the physical activities. Kids are taught to respect others, do their homework, and make other good choices in life. Many come to view their instructors as mentors.
The accusations and arrests that came in the fire's aftermath were a shock to the hundreds of teens and little kids they had taught, the students' parents, and their own friends and families.
Murillo's parents, Joseph and Isabell, wrote in a letter to the court that their daughter sings, draws, practices karate, and plays soccer. She played softball and football at La Joya Community High School. She went to church every Sunday, is liked by teachers, and won a college scholarship.
"Never in a million years would we ever think she would be locked up," they wrote.
The owner and staff members of Young Champions are still reeling from the group's actions and what led to them. The arson, though unexpected, was the culmination of months of drama and suspicion at the Phoenix office building. Antonucci had been accused of pilfering daily sales totals and of running moneymaking operations on the side. Before he was fired, the company hired an outside auditor to determine the extent of the thefts. The auditor not only discovered problems with records kept by Robinson and other instructors, but evidence of far more serious embezzlement by another less-tenured employee.
On the morning of the fire, Hood, his wife, Tawnya, and Hollingworth were at the site before the sun came up. They simply couldn't believe the blackened, unrecognizable corpse was that of sensei Josh Robinson.
The idea of treachery by a friend was too tough to fathom.
Before Young Champions of America, there was Bonnie Blue Bells.
Bonnie Hood started the company in 1958 in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area to teach an activity that was immensely popular at the time: baton-twirling. Hood's flash of inspiration was to bring baton-twirling to the masses by partnering with school districts, which would provide space for classes. The late Hood would later run a traveling variety show called the New Olympians, which hosted numerous cultural exchanges from Cuba to China.
Baton-twirling fell out of fashion, but not before Hood's son, Rory, who came to school in Arizona, caught the bug. He became an ace baton-twirler during his years at the University of Arizona. He also helped expand his mother's company, which had changed its name and begun to offer instruction in other activities.
Martial arts had gained popularity through the '70s, thanks to martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. Then, in 1984, the movie The Karate Kid changed everything. People lined up around the block to take karate classes from the Hoods' company. Martial arts, of course, continue to be a staple of popular culture. (A remake of The Karate Kid is scheduled to be released this year). Young Champions ultimately opened offices in 16 states, and teaches an estimated 75,000 youth nationwide.
The company introduced karate to Jonathan Antonucci when he was 12. Back then, Antonucci was living in Fort Collins, Colorado, the oldest of five siblings who were home-schooled by their devoutly Baptist parents.
Antonucci was a hardworking, entrepreneurial sort, his 18-year-old brother, Joshua, tells New Times. Starting when Jonathan was 9, he made money each summer mowing lawns and each snowy winter delivering newspapers. He discovered a Young Champions branch through the local Boys and Girls Club, and martial arts soon became a part of his persona. Joshua says his brother got an early start as a teacher, giving lessons to his siblings in their backyard and handing out homemade awards.
When he found out that his father, Dante Antonucci, planned to move the family to Phoenix, "he was excited because this was the base for Young Champions of America, and this was supposed to be where the best instructors were," Joshua says.
His first lessons in his new city were from Kraig Hollingworth, but he also spent time under the tutelage of Josh Robinson.
Robinson was almost like family to some of the company's staffers — especially his former teacher Hollingworth. A few years after Robinson's mother enrolled her son in karate classes, she met her future husband, Larry Moody, another single parent who took his daughter and son to the classes. Moody even proposed to Robinson's mom in front of a delighted crowd at a Young Champions karate tournament.
The boy became an accomplished black belt, instructor, and employee with the company. Still, his family members describe him as a bit naive and immature, the type of guy who often starts projects he doesn't finish. He was given a medical discharge from the Marine Corps and worked odd jobs to supplement his Young Champions income. He couldn't hold his first, brief marriage together — his wife took their two small children and moved to Utah. After his divorce, he fell in love with a Mexican immigrant who spoke little English. They didn't have much money, but they had a son together in 2008 and planned to get married.
Robinson's sister, Angie Guzman, says they made a "kooky little couple."
Robinson and Antonucci became good friends over the years, and the teen graduated from student to Robinson's assistant instructor. The pair were very popular with students. Sometimes they'd force each other to endure pain-threshold tests or joint locks, which entertained their classes.
"Jon and Josh were maybe the life of the entire company," says Joshua Antonucci.
But Jonathan Antonucci wasn't satisfied with the way Young Champions was run, Joshua says. Class attendance typically dropped off in the summer, and Antonucci couldn't make the kind of money he wanted, forcing him to take an occasional side job. His financial problems were partly based on lifestyle. Antonucci made more than $30,000 and Robinson more than $40,000 in the year preceding the fire, says Hollingworth. They were paid a commission for each student, and both worked an average of only 30 hours a week, he says.
When Antonucci moved out of his parents' house at age 18 and began renting a home, money got tight. So he did what many Americans would do in that situation: bought a nice automobile on credit. A 2004 GMC Sierra 1500 pickup, to be precise.
He also ramped up plans to launch his own dojo, Red Dragon Martial Arts, which had been his dream since the days of the pretend classes in his backyard in Colorado. He had asked Murillo, Otto, and Robinson to work for him. Joshua Antonucci says Robinson had a "hard time" with the concept of going from Jon's sensei (a Japanese term of respect for a person who has mastered a discipline) to Jon's employee — he wanted to work with Jonathan, not for him. But the entrepreneurial-minded teen, his brother says, wouldn't hear of it.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Dallas Mavericks
TicketsFri., Oct. 14, 7:00pm
Despite the disagreement, Robinson apparently came around to intending to work for the younger man.
Joshua Antonucci has continued to help develop a Web site for the business his brother wants to open — and has tried to retain the support of his brother's former students. Jonathan Antonucci says that when he gets out of prison, even if it's not for two decades, he still intends to open the dojo.
The headquarters of Young Champions of America is now in a wasteland of half-empty office buildings in the Scottsdale Airpark area. The new place doesn't have as much room as the old building and property, which the company bought in 2004 during a period of growth. But it's enough space to manage the business and keep classes going.
Last month, Rory and Tawnya Hood, Hollingworth, and the company's business manager, Char Brandom, chatted with New Times about the fire and the events leading up to it. Hood chastises himself for being such a softie with the "kids." The company had been ripped off before, on a lesser scale, because so much money was collected in the field. In late 2008, Hood and Hollingworth found that Antonucci was taking greedy schemes further than anyone in the past, yet Hood still gave him a second chance.
Instructors at Young Champions receive awards for retaining the most students, and after a while, nobody could match Antonucci. Whether in karate classes or the occasional soccer class he taught, students seldom left the teen. Even Hollingworth, despite his years of experience, could not keep so many students.
"It was too fishy for me," Hollingworth says. He began an investigation and quickly saw that, for weeks at a time, Antonucci recorded no absences for any of his students. The teen also had, suspiciously, failed to turn in sign-in sheets that should have been collected at the classes.
Rory Hood admits the company was too trusting of its instructors, who represented Young Champions at the various class locations without much supervision. (Changes have since been made).
Because it turned out that Antonucci had been signing up and instructing more students than he claimed, and he'd been keeping the extra money, Hollingworth assigned himself the project of checking up on other instructors' records.
About the same time, company officials began receiving various complaints about Antonucci, Robinson, and other instructors. They'd been selling candy and water during classes without permits or approval from Young Champions, and they'd continued to do it even after getting written up for violating company policy.
Phone calls began to trickle in from people at the school or church facilities used for classes. Facility owners or managers complained that Antonucci was teaching more classes, at extended hours, than the contracts called for. He also wasn't monitoring everyone at the classes properly, meaning parents were wandering around the school or church grounds. Once, Antonucci backed his truck onto a church's property to unload equipment, destroying the landscaping.
When asked about such things, Antonucci typically had an excuse and would deny he did anything wrong. But Shar, who took many of the angry phone calls, told Rory Hood what it all added up to: Antonucci was a liar, and he couldn't be trusted.
Hood says he'd gotten other people who'd stolen from the company prosecuted in the past. But with the popular Antonucci, who was good friends with Robinson, "I was hoping this was not true."
Hollingworth and Hood called in Antonucci for a meeting in February 2009.
"I'm like, 'Jon, I'm upset,'" Hood says. "'What happened? What's going on?'"
Antonucci responded, "I figured you'd ask that." He took out some sheets of paper from a folder and passed them to his bosses. The sheets explained that all his moneymaking schemes were part of an elaborate experiment he was conducting to help Young Champions discover its security flaws. He called it "Project Catch Them."
Antonucci told Hood and Hollingworth he'd intended to show Young Champions how its instructors might steal from the company, and he added that he was "shocked" they'd caught him first. Then he pulled $2,700 worth of $20 bills from a moneybag in his pants and handed it to Hollingworth, explaining it was his illicit profit — from the semester that began just a few weeks earlier.
"Our jaws dropped to the ground," Hood says. "I told him, 'Do you think I became the president of a company to be this stupid?"
They estimated that Antonucci had snatched more than $10,000 in the previous year. Yet days later, when Antonucci came clean and admitted to stealing, the company decided to let him keep teaching some classes.
It wasn't a great time to give up one of its best instructors. The company had been posting poor profits and had recently hired an auditor to catch other thieves and figure out better ways to manage the firm's income. The auditor found a big reason for the company's poor performance: another embezzling employee, who Hood says used forgery and fraud to steal at least $16,000 and perhaps far more. Young Champions forwarded its findings to police. The employee hasn't been charged so New Times is withholding the person's name.
With bigger fish to fry, and with parents asking when Antonucci was coming back, Hood relented.
"We were going to take small amounts out of [Antonucci's] check," Hood says. "I felt good. I was not ruining this kid's life."
By that April, though, Sensei Jon had blown his second chance. Parents had started to complain, saying they paid too much for their kids' aptitude tests in the classes. It turned out Antonucci had added his own personal surcharge to the test fees.
The teen was fired, this time without much ado. But Hollingworth found more trouble when he went through Antonucci's company e-mails. Antonucci and Robinson had used the e-mails to discuss plans for the new company, Red Dragon. Hollingworth had also suspected Robinson was running some of the same schemes as Antonucci but hadn't caught him red-handed yet. He decided to perform a second audit of Robinson's records and, this time, found discrepancies that seemed to prove Robinson had stolen money, too.
Robinson was given an ultimatum: stop the shenanigans or be fired.
As for Antonucci, the company took the possible competition seriously and threatened to sue him. Like all the other instructors, Antonucci had signed a contract with Young Champions that prohibited him from similar employment within 16 months of leaving the company. Yet by May, Antonucci had started his own classes.
"We were getting ready to file an injunction," says Hollingworth.
Antonucci decided to settle with his former employer. He agreed to stop recruiting his former students, to not copy the company's business model, and to pay the company's attorney fees in the case. He was supposed to come into the office on Monday, June 15, to sign the agreement.
By then, there was no office.
The fire happened during a rare stretch of cool weather in June. The arsonists dressed mostly in black and all wore dark, hooded sweaters. Just after 11 p.m., Murillo, Otto, Antonucci, and Robinson met at the Walmart at 75th Avenue and McDowell Road and bought three five-gallon gas cans. They filled them up at a nearby Chevron station and put them in the bed of Antonucci's pickup with two other gas cans already there.
As part of their planned alibi, authorities believe, Murillo and Otto drove to another friend's house about midnight, hung out for a bit, then took Otto's car to meet Antonucci and Robinson at Young Champions headquarters, 5414 South 40th Street. They parked the two vehicles about a block away and left one gas can behind because of the weight — each weighed about 30 pounds. The karate instructors each carried one can to the awning before passing them to the top, says fire inspector Marika McCue.
All four climbed up onto the awning, McCue says.
Antonucci smashed the second-floor window to Rory Hood's office, his hand protected by a soccer shin-guard. The gas cans were hauled inside.
"They were madly splashing it around — 20 gallons of fuel," says McCue. "Even if the room had been twice that size, it still would have been a lot of fumes."
Robinson and his younger friends apparently figured the liquid gas on the floor, desk, and cabinets would catch fire far more slowly. Larry Moody, Robinson's stepfather, says his son wasn't mechanically inclined and was "very naive to the power of gasoline."
When Robinson struck the match, "he spontaneously ignited," says McCue. "Everything — clothes, skin, hair."
The other suspects fled the scene without calling for help.
To create their own alibi, Antonucci and Robinson had intended to drive to Utah after the building was torched. Robinson and his fiancée planned to get married that Sunday night. He had arranged to pick up his other two children at his ex-wife's place and bring them to Phoenix for a brief ceremony.
Now, obviously, the wedding was off.
The three surviving friends met up at Antonucci's house and watched Liar, Liar. It's doubtful they paid much attention to the flick, considering what they'd just been through, but the choice of movie was appropriate. After the movie, Antonucci filed a missing persons report on Robinson. He apparently wanted authorities to believe he had no idea what had happened to his friend.
By dawn, the group had split up. Antonucci drove to Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in Casa Grande, where his father is pastor.
About 1 p.m., a Young Champions employee told authorities the body at the fire scene was definitely Josh Robinson's, judging by a tattoo of a Japanese character on the corpse's back. McCue says the employee told her that Robinson and Antonucci were as "thick as thieves."
Police called Antonucci a couple of hours later and asked him to come in for an interview. He drove to police headquarters at 620 West Washington Street with his brother, Joshua — and blabbed his way right into a jail cell.
Before he gave McCue enough information to arrest him, though, Antonucci inadvertently gave up his friends, Otto and Murillo. In recounting the evening of June 13, Antonucci casually mentioned they had accompanied him to Walmart to buy gas cans, which Robinson wanted to take to Utah "because he has a habit of allowing his vehicle to run out of gas."
Until then, Otto and Murillo weren't on McCue's radar. Young Champions employees didn't suspect them, and police might never have known they were with the other two arsonists that night.
Antonucci told the investigator that, despite the purchase of gas cans and gasoline, he didn't know Robinson intended to burn down a building. He did claim, however, that just one week before, Robinson had "joked" about torching Young Champions to destroy the company's paperwork.
After they bought the gas, Antonucci related in the police interview, Robinson told him he had to run out for a quick errand before they drove to Utah. But, he contended, Robinson never came back.
McCue tightened the screws, telling him — truthfully — that a witness had seen someone that fit his description in a similar pickup driving slowly around the Young Champions building just before the fire started. With that, Antonucci confessed. Sort of.
He admitted he'd driven Robinson to Young Champions. Antonucci told McCue he thought they were driving to Utah, but Robinson started giving him directions that led him to the building. He said he didn't question Robinson, nor did he see the older man remove any gas cans from Antonucci's pickup. He said he waited in the truck a block away, not knowing what Robinson was doing. Then came a popping sound, followed a few minutes later by sirens.
Antonucci told McCue he then drove past the Young Champions building and saw Robinson in flames on top of the awning. He drove down the street, made a U-turn, and drove past one more time. Robinson was now on the ground.
"He said it was awful seeing his best friend agonizingly burn alive," states McCue's report. "He denied getting out of his vehicle and said he just left the area because he didn't want anyone to think he was involved with setting the fire."
Armed with details about the purchase of gas cans by Otto and Murillo, police called in the pair for a chat on June 23. They drove to the police station together. Phoenix police Detective Audrey Santisi interviewed Murillo first. At the outset, she would say only that she had been with Otto and Antonucci the night of the fire. They had watched Liar, Liar together while worrying why Robinson had disappeared before his planned trip to Utah, Murillo said.
Murillo acknowledged hearing rumors around the office that Antonucci and Robinson were suspected of embezzling from the firm.
Then came Otto's turn. He talked about the embezzlement investigation, too, telling Santisi that Antonucci admitted to him that he'd stolen $600 from Young Champions. Otto said Robinson, on the other hand, "never took a single dime" from the company.
Otto told Santisi that, a week before the fire, Robinson and Antonucci were "joking" that if they burned down the building, it would "erase everything."
During the same conversation, Otto claimed, Antonucci talked about his contract's anti-competition clause and "was making comments of how he would like to bring YCOA down or take YCOA out, for the sake of his business. Jeff interpreted this as that Jon's business would be dominant over YCOA."
Otto also talked of buying the gas cans with the other instructors. Murillo hadn't mentioned that part, but Otto admitted buying one of the cans when re-interviewed by Santisi.
The two remained free for about two weeks — until fire officials recovered the digital video file from the surveillance camera. McCue told the pair to come back in for another interview, which they did on July 5. She showed Murillo a still image from the video that shows three people, including the burning Robinson, on the awning.
Murillo cracked. In tears, she confessed to helping plan and execute the arson. After police took her into custody, they found the receipt for one of the gas cans in her purse, as if she'd been keeping it as a memento.
McCue says Otto stuck to his story. At the end of an hours-long interview, she pulled out the video image. She pointed at one of the people in the picture. The face wasn't visible, but the figure had Otto's build. "That's you," she told him.
"I think I need a lawyer," Otto said, before invoking his right to remain silent.
McCue says she later discovered one piece of hard evidence against Otto: Cell phone records show he sent a text message from the fire scene, just after midnight on June 14.
Why Otto and Murillo decided to help their friends commit arson still isn't clear.
They might have fallen for what police believe was the poorly considered plan by Antonucci and Robinson to erase evidence of their embezzlement and clear the path for Antonucci's business — where they were considering working.
As it turned out, the hard drive of a computer containing the instructors' records — and, therefore, potential proof of the schemes — was recovered intact by authorities. On top of that, Antonucci's paperwork already had been copied and passed on to police.
The company had proof of Antonucci's and Robinson's thefts, but not Otto's and Murillo's.
Hollingworth says it's possible the two also were stealing from the company, which could have meant they, too, wanted to destroy records. He tells New Times it would take time to go through the data to figure out whether Otto and Murillo pocketed class fees. He says he won't bother now because the point is moot.
McCue says Otto and Murillo's involvement is, perhaps, the oddest aspect of the case. The investigator has been able to find no evidence of a motive for their engaging in the arson, beyond a strong friendship with the more-experienced instructors. Even romance didn't enter in: McCue says Murillo was attracted to Otto, but the two weren't dating.
"They had nothing to gain. Nothing," says McCue. "They came to a cross in the road — they had to make a choice. Are you going to do the right thing or go along with your buddies?"
Wearing stripes and pink long underwear in an interview room in the Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix, the minister's son is nervous — but cocky. He's lanky, about six feet tall. A detention officer later tells New Times that Jonathan Antonucci is creating a reputation for himself as a jailhouse preacher.
During an interview, Antonucci peppers his conversation with Bible quotes. He tries to compare himself to Kings David and Solomon, who sinned mightily yet "always came back to what they were taught."
Despite his professed religious beliefs, some of Antonucci's statements to New Times contradict what he told police. And despite his pleading guilty to manslaughter and arson, Antonucci maintains he's guilty of neither.
"The biggest reason I was there was that I was going along to try to stop them," Antonucci claims. "Somebody told me that maybe, somewhere deep down in my subconscious, I wanted it to happen. I don't believe that's true. I really don't. But if it is, I know it's no longer true."
If he had to do it again, he says, he wouldn't try to stop the arson with mere argument. Instead of acting "cowardly," he says he would have tackled Robinson to stop him.
He implies that Robinson had a motive for the arson but that "embezzlement had absolutely nothing to do with it."
So what was the motive?
"The motivation was not my own, so I'd rather not speak of it," he replies.
Though Antonucci reportedly told McCue that he never got out of his truck, he now claims he was far from the truck when the fire broke out. He says the police report is wrong: He never saw Robinson on fire and, therefore, didn't fail to seek help for his friend.
"To me, it made me sound like quite a monster, and that is not what happened," he says. "The smart side got a hold of me about 15 seconds after the incident began, and I ran as fast as I possibly could" back to the truck.
Clearly, his statements to New Times and to police can't both be true.
It's disturbing how Antonucci tries to justify stealing money from Young Champions. Though he admits "there was probably $600 to $800 that I came by that I should not have come by," he explains that he took the money in retaliation for the company's breaking a promise to him. In 2008, he was told by the company that he could work as an instructor for a summer camp, he says, but Young Champions canceled the camp. That put him in a financial bind, he says, "so I thought . . . I'll take a little extra here."
He says he believes Young Champions didn't deserve to be torched, but "I guess some people might disagree with that."
Antonucci says he doesn't believe Otto or Murillo should be sentenced to any more time in prison than he himself gets. (Otto's trial, if he doesn't change his plea, is scheduled in May.) Antonucci says he hopes Otto will be found innocent.
He says he also hopes the judge in his case, Joseph Kreamer, gives him fewer than the minimum seven years that the state is seeking. When he gets out, he says, he'll try to find Robinson's son "to make sure he's doing okay."
Somehow, it seems doubtful that Robinson's former fiancée, who has reportedly returned to Mexico, would ever want to see him again.
The staffers at Young Champions sure don't. They hope he gets the maximum 21 years. And they worry that whenever he gets out, he will come after them or the company.
Josh Robinson's parents are crushed, both by their son's death and his criminal behavior. Angie Guzman, Robinson's sister, cries as she explains how she and her son are unlikely to see Robinson's kids ever again.
Then there are all the friends and students of the four people connected to the arson. Two memorials for Robinson drew hundreds of people. In response to online articles in New Times about the suspects, many parents of students left written comments about how the crime has shaken their lives.
One woman contacted by New Times related how her teenage daughter had benefited enormously from training with Robinson over seven years.
"She was devastated [by the death]," the teen's mother says. "Two weeks later, she had lost 10 pounds. Her self-confidence has gone down. She doesn't trust people. She's just not the same — it's like her innocence was lost."
The woman said she wanted to deliver a message to Antonucci from her daughter at his sentencing hearing.
"She wanted me to look Jon in the eye and ask, 'Why did you leave your best friend when he was on fire?'"
The woman showed up for the scheduled sentencing on January 8 but didn't try to talk to Antonucci. (A sign in the courtroom prohibits such communication with detainees.)
Antonucci, in shackles, smiled occasionally during the proceeding but didn't turn to look at anyone in the gallery.
The courtroom was packed: Antonucci's friends and family on one side, and his detractors — including staff members of Young Champions — on the other. His father's mouth hung open slightly, as if stunned by the event. His mother had a sort of old-school Christian schoolmarm look; she wore a plain, long, blue skirt and white blouse. Neither would comment for this article.
Antonucci's lawyer, Jeffrey Kirchler, said he needed extra time to round up people to testify in support of the defendant. Judge Kreamer rescheduled the sentencing for March 5.
Deputy County Attorney Jon Wendell told the judge he would use the extra time to prepare a list of aggravating factors Kreamer should consider before the sentencing.
As he was led out after the hearing, Sensei Jon avoided the stares of his detractors.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.