WOODSTOCK – Attorneys from both sides painted a different picture of the 24-year-old Elmhurst man accused of starting a fire that destroyed two cars and a Pistakee Highlands home.
There's the Joseph O. Ziegler who prosecutors said was a revenge seeker, angry about stolen drugs. A "genius" who missed his intended target, instead setting fire to a home two doors away, Assistant State's Attorney Dave Johnston said.
Then there's the Ziegler who defense attorneys said was a patsy who cooperated with police. There's no evidence placing him at the crime, Assistant Public Defender Angelo Mourelatos said. Someone else's clothes were found at the scene of the fire and there was no trace of accelerants on Ziegler's clothing.
Ziegler is on trial this week, facing multiple arson-related felonies, accused of setting fire to Roseanne Aitken's house on Aug. 9, 2012, in Pistakee Highlands.
This is the second time Ziegler has faced trial on charges that he started a fire in two vehicles – the blaze eventually spreading to the home. A jury in November failed to reach a unanimous decision and Judge Sharon Prather declared a mistrial on the arson charges, but Ziegler was convicted of burglary.
Johnston said Ziegler intended to torch the home of Nicholas Pennington because Ziegler believed he stole drugs from him.
Pennington lived at 5107 Westwood Drive, outside Johnsburg; Aitken lived at 5113 Westwood.
"He came very, very close to the object of his revenge," Johnston said Tuesday in his opening statement.
Some of the state's witnesses – a crew of teenagers who admitted to drinking and taking drugs with Ziegler the night of the fire – testified that Ziegler said he wanted to "blow up" Pennington's house after the two had an argument earlier in the night.
Two of the boys, Dakota Wilkinson, now 20 years old, and Devon Weber, 19, were taken into police custody immediately after the fire. Wilkinson initially fled from the authorities, and while handcuffed in the back of the squad car, he asked officers: "How much trouble am I in?"
"Joe didn't flee the scene like Dakota," Mourelatos said.
Both boys told Assistant State's Attorney Robert Zalud that they were nervous and on drugs. Wilkinson also lived in the neighborhood where the fire took place.
"If you wanted to burn down Nick Pennington's house, you wouldn't get the wrong house because you know where he lives?" Zalud asked.
Wilkinson responded: "I know where he lives."
The trial could wrap up as early as Wednesday. The state has two additional witnesses planned for the morning before closing and handing the case over to the defense.