One of three former karate instructors accused in the deadly arson fire at the Phoenix headquarters of Young Champions of America was sentenced today to 14 years in prison.
In an emotional hearing before a packed courtroom, Judge Joseph Kreamer told Jonathan Antonucci that he was troubled by several aspects of the case. In particular, the judge worried about the impact on the many children who took lessons from Antonucci.
"I think what you did was take away the innocence of many kids, and that is particularly disturbing," Kreamer said. Another "tragic part," he said, was how Antonucci fled the scene after his buddy and co-worker, Josh Robinson, went up in flames.
We took a comprehensive look at the case in our January 21 edition, describing how Antonucci stole from the company for months and had started his own karate company before deciding to burn down Young Champions.
Antonucci pleaded guilty to arson and manslaughter in November, a few weeks after the guilty plea of one of his alleged accomplices in the June 14 fire, Moniza Murillo.
The third suspect, Jeff Otto, is holding out for a trial on a first-degree-murder charge, even though Murillo's plea deal requires her to testify against him. All three are 20 years old.
One of the arsonists, 28-year-old Josh Robinson, died after he lit a match in a gasoline-soaked room in the Young Champions building at 5414 South 40th Street.
Kreamer rejected a call from prosecutor Jon Wendell to slap Antonucci with the maximum 21-year sentence for his crimes, noting that the young man had no criminal record and had expressed remorse in the courtroom.
Rory Hood, owner of Young Champions, had also pushed for the max in an impassioned speech that dripped with anger. Hood described how he and his wife had started the business from scratch in a Tempe apartment. The firm grew over the years to teach about 15,000 students in several states, eventually being able to afford the spacious south Phoenix building that contained offices and a warehouse. The place was adorned with awards, pictures and other mementos going back a quarter-century, he said.
"We were so proud of it, and now it's gone," Hood said, adding that insurance didn't fully cover the loss.
The company now operates out of a rented office in the Scottsdale Airpark area.
Hood said it was agonizing to see the scorched and blackened body at the fire scene, especially not knowing the identity of the victim at first. Young Champions employees Kraig Hollingworth and Char Brandom also spoke against Antonucci, as did Angela Guzman, Robinson's sister. Family members and supporters of Antonucci had a chance to speak after the victims. Meanwhile, Otto and Murillo, sat in the jury box in their jail garb and absorbed it all. Otto seemed relatively calm while Murillo bawled heavily at times and mouthed "I'm sorry" to the Young Champions supporters.
Antonucci's father, Dante, a part-time Baptist preacher, described his firstborn as outgoing, loving and pretty much a normal kid who could be stubborn at times. True, Jonathan committed foolish, "very wrong" acts, Dante Antonucci said. But his son was full of remorse, contrary to some speculation.
"It's genuine, it's real -- I've seen it," he said.
When it was his turn to speak before Kreamer, Antonucci told the judge, "I've lied, I've deceived, I've manipulated."
He told Kreamer and the victims in the case that he was sorry and was taking responsibility for his actions.
"I probably will never know how much pain and devastation I caused," he said. "I wish I could take it back."
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Antonucci will receive credit for the 263 days he's already served in jail, and will be eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of his sentence.
As if he hasn't gotten enough attention lately, it turns out that Antonucci will also be the subject of an episode of MSNBC's show, Lockup, which has been following him at the county jail for the past several weeks. The show is expected to air this summer.
The big question in this case now is whether Otto will go forward with his trial, scheduled for May 11, or take a plea deal.
With Antonucci having become the main attraction of this show, maybe Otto and Murillo will slip out with much lighter sentences.