Man to be sentenced today in Baltimore County arsons

Fires set last year in Randallstown area

January 31, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A Randallstown man who admitted that he liked to watch fires, had applied to become a volunteer firefighter and tried to set himself ablaze after he was charged with three arsons could receive a 40-year prison term when he is sentenced today by a Baltimore County judge.

Lawrence E. Banton III, 30, pleaded guilty to two of the arsons in November and is to be sentenced by county Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl.

Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Dever said she will ask for a sentence of 25 years.

Stewart Lyons, an assistant public defender representing Banton, said he will ask for a lesser sentence and a recommendation that Banton be sent to Patuxent Institution for treatment.

Banton, who is being held at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, has been diagnosed by therapists as a pyromaniac who suffers from depression and has a borderline personality disorder, Lyons said.

"My position is that it's important that he have some kind of treatment so that he's prepared to handle himself in society whenever he gets out," Lyons said.

The Randallstown area was hit with a series of fires last spring. A blaze broke out April 30 at a Salvation Army store. That was followed by fires May 5 at the Randallstown branch library, May 13 at a vacant fast-food restaurant and May 14 in a vacant house.

The library fire, the most serious of the four, caused an estimated $250,000 in damage. Capt. Glenn Blackwell, a Fire Department spokesman, said the cause has not been determined.

Banton was not charged in the library fire, but he became a suspect in the others when he repeatedly showed up at fires in the area, police said.

He was charged last spring with three counts of arson and initially entered an insanity plea. Banton later pleaded guilty to two counts after psychiatrists at Perkins found that he failed to meet the legal standards for insanity.

Banton admitted setting the fire at the Salvation Army store, which damaged several businesses in the 8700 block of Liberty Road, and the fire at the empty Roy Rogers in the 3500 block of Benbrook Road.

In exchange for the plea, Dever dismissed charges that Banton set fire to a vacant house in the 5300 block of Old Court Road and tried to escape from the Baltimore County Detention Center June 25.

Officials said Banton tried to set himself on fire Sept. 29 while waiting trial in the detention center. James O'Neill, the detention center administrator, said Banton smuggled matches into his cell and set papers, blankets and sheets on fire about 8:45 p.m. Matches are prohibited in the smoke-free jail.

The fire activated the sprinkler system, which quickly doused the flames. Banton was treated for minor injuries and placed on a suicide watch, O'Neill said.

Lyons said Banton tried to set himself on fire because he was angry at jail officials for telling his parents when they came for a visit that he didn't want to see them.

Police said Banton, who was homeless at the time of his arrest, moved to Maryland in 1999 when he was paroled after serving six years for an arson in New York.

In April, he applied to become a firefighter at the Liberty Road Volunteer Fire Station, police said.

Banton initially denied any involvement in the three fires but admitted setting them when he was confronted by investigators.

In handwritten answers to investigators' questions, Banton said he acted alone. Asked why he set the fires, he wrote: "Because I like to see the fire department put out fires."

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