ELYRIA — Drew Manns hung his head and sobbed as Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Mark Betleski sentenced him Friday to five years in prison for starting a Feb. 18, 2009, fire that caused more than $8.4 million in damage to Lorain County Community College.
“Oh my God,” Manns said as several members of his family broke down behind him.
Manns, 29, had said earlier in the hearing that he never meant to start the fire, which began in the tunnels running beneath the campus.
He said he went to the college for his GED class early on the day of the fire because of an argument with his stepfather. Manns said when his teacher arrived, she became upset with him for getting there before her, so he went down in the tunnels — which were full of furniture and other items the college was storing there — to smoke a cigarette.
Realizing he needed to return to class, Manns said he dropped the cigarette and left.
“I dropped the cigarette and I walked off, and I went back upstairs. Next thing I know, the whole college was filled with smoke. I didn’t want to hurt nobody,” Manns said.
“I didn’t mean for that fire to happen. It was purely accidental. Careless, ’cause I didn’t smoke outside like I was supposed to, but never did I intend for a $8.5 million damage to happen.”
Manns also pleaded with Betleski to allow him to remain free, return home and marry his fiance.
“Let me prove to the court that I’m not what my past says I am,” he said. “I want to change my future.”
Manns has an extensive criminal record that stretches to his youth, including starting a fire in a Chinese restaurant when he was 12 years old. Assistant County Prosecutor Laura Dezort said Manns later admitted that fire was intentionally set because he was upset with a girlfriend.
That blaze, Dezort said, was also caused by a cigarette, which made her question whether the LCCC fire was accidental.
“He certainly knew the consequences of throwing a lit cigarette down,” she said.
Shortly after the LCCC fire, in which three firefighters were injured by heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, Manns was sentenced to the prison time for a string of unrelated crimes, including his 2007 escape from the Lorain/Medina Community Based Correctional Facility and his attempts to illegally purchase a handgun.
Manns has had other troubles since his release from prison in 2011, including the loss of his son, who died just days after being born, something Manns said sent him into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse. He also was accused of stealing from his mother, Wanda Campolo, who later asked for a theft charge against her son to be dropped.
Campolo described the years she’s spent dealing with her son’s troubled fortunes, which can be traced to brain damage he suffered in the womb because she took the anti-acne drug Accutane while she was pregnant with him.
But she also said that she didn’t know that if her son got into trouble again whether she would come to court to support him again.
Forensic psychologist James Eisenberg testified during the hearing that Manns suffers from “fragile X syndrome,” which he believes is the main cause of Manns’ impulse control issues and poor judgment.
Manns also suffers from attention deficit disorder, is bipolar, has substance abuse issues and might be schizophrenic, Eisenberg said.
Although he concluded that Manns isn’t at risk for committing violence against people, Eisenberg said that there’s no cure for Manns’ mental health problems. The best that can be hoped for, he said, is to keep those issues under control.
Dezort said while she was sympathetic to Manns’ plight, that didn’t absolve him of responsibility for his actions. She said that even when Manns is taking his medication, there’s a chance he could stop doing so.
When things go wrong in Manns’ life, Dezort said, he does things that endanger society. That’s what happened with the LCCC fire, she said.
“He gets angry, he goes downstairs and poof, we have a fire,” Dezort said.
Following the hearing, Manns’ attorney, Jay Milano, said the fact that there exists no place for his client to go for treatment is a tragedy. Milano had pushed for Manns to receive house arrest and probation in the case.
“He’s paying a price for something he essentially had no control over,” Milano said.