Who does Jeffrey Otto know in state government?
That's the question on our minds after learning that ex-Governor Jan Brewer, just before leaving office, granted a rare commutation to convicted "Young Champions" arsonist Jeffrey Otto, knocking three years off his 10-year sentence.
New Times reported extensively on the 2009 arson, which left one of the four offenders dead and temporarily took out a youth-sports business that serves thousands of Valley children.
The move to help Otto was rare for two reasons: Brewer gave few commutations while in office, and most of the prisoners who received her leniency were terminally ill.
Arizona Capitol Times reporter Gary Grado broke the story a few days ago, reporting that of the six commutations Brewer granted last year, five were for dying prisoners. You could read the whole story, but the Capitol Times has one of those paywall thingys, so you'll probably have to give up a rent payment for a subscription. The Associated Press reported on the story, though, telling readers what Grado found out.
Also in 2014, Grado reported, Brewer rejected 12 requests for commutations recommended by the state Board of Executive Clemency. She granted an average of seven commutations a year since Janet Napolitano abandoned the state in 2009, with two generally being for reasons other than illnesses. Her office refused to give Grado any explanation for the leniency shown to Otto.
As we covered in a 2010 feature article, the plan to torch the Young Champions of America building in Phoenix appeared to be hatched by karate sensei Jonathan Antonucci, the son of a Baptist preacher who'd been embezzling thousands of dollars from the company. Antonucci, then 20, had also convinced 28-year-old Josh Robinson, who had been a student or instructor of Young Champions since he was 7, to work for him at a planned karate studio Antonucci would run.
Otto, then 20, and Moniza Murillo, then 21, were also trusted karate instructors for the company, which had been around in some form since the 1950s and also teaches kids cheerleading, soccer, dancing, and other activities at schools and various locations across the Phoenix metro area. Somehow, all four young people, none of whom had been in previous trouble with the law, decided the best course of action to erase evidence of embezzlement by Antonucci and, to a lesser extent, Robinson, was to torch the company's building at 40th Street and Baseline Road.
In the early morning of June 4, 2009, the four "champions" snuck onto the property, toting four five-gallon cans of gasoline. They climbed onto a second-floor awning, where Robinson, a former Marine, broke into the office of Young Champions president Rory Hood. After pouring the estimated 20 gallons of fuel into the small office, Robinson lit a match and turned into a human fireball.
Following the horror and chaos of Robinson's fatal burning, the three surviving arsonists went to Antonucci's home and watched the movie, Liar, Liar, according to police records. When police learned of their involvement and began interrogating them, Otto never admitted his role in the scheme, records show.
Otto did, however, make several statements to police. He told cops that while Antonucci had told him he'd stolen from the firm, Robinson "never took a single dime" from Young Americans. Yet he also said his two friends had been "joking" about burning down the building to "erase everything."
Otto told police that, according to Antonucci, Young Champions -- along with a non-compete contract Antonucci had signed -- was standing in the way of his ability to start his own business. Otto admitted buying gas cans, but wouldn't admit he'd been at the scene of the arson. Cell-phone records later proved he'd sent a text message from the fire site at the time of the crime, police told New Times.
Under Arizona's truth-in-sentencing law, convicted felons are supposed to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. But Arizona law allows the governor to grant "reprieves, commutations and pardons" when they are recommended by the clemency board.
Supporters of Otto launched a "Free Jeff Otto" campaign a few years ago, starting a Facebook site in 2011. It features an apology to Young Champions by Otto, plus Otto's artwork and updates on the effort to seek clemency for him. As can be seen, Otto's friends and family members encouraged a letter-writing effort to the clemency board and sold "Free Jeff Otto" T-shirts.
Otto was one of 37 inmates who applied for commutations in 2013, says Terry Adriance of the clemency board. In April of 2014, Antonucci applied for a commutation, but in June the clemency board decided not to pass him on for a second hearing. Antonucci can re-apply in two years, Adriance says.
Otto, however, struck clemency gold by first getting that crucial second hearing, then learning in February that Brewer had granted him a three-year reprieve from his sentence. He's now scheduled to be released on August 2.
The Otto Facebook site hasn't been updated in a year, since the jubilant message last year, "How crazy to think that today marks one year until Jeff gets out!"
Judging by Brewer's usual "tough-on-crime" stance when it comes to the commutations of felons like Otto, "crazy" is one way to put it.
But Otto's not a typical prison inmate and probably has little chance of re-offending. We're hopeful he'll use the years Brewer gave him wisely.
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.
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