WOODSTOCK – McHenry County jurors deliberated for five hours Wednesday before finding Joseph Ziegler guilty of five counts of arson.
The 24-year-old faces between six and 30 years in prison after being convicted of setting a fire that destroyed two cars and severely damaged a home. He will be sentenced July 2. Prosecutors said Ziegler, in a revenge-fueled rage, intended to torch the home belonging to Nick Pennington because he believed Pennington stole drugs from him.
But Ziegler missed his mark, instead setting fire to an SUV parked in the driveway of Roseanne Aitken as she and her dog slept. The prosecution’s theory was that Ziegler mistook Aitken’s dark-colored SUV for one that Pennington was seen in earlier that night. Aitken lived two doors away from Pennington.
“In his misguided quest for revenge against Nick Pennington, he simply went to the wrong house,” Assistant State’s Attorney Dave Johnston said Wednesday during his closing argument.
“Teach him the lesson he didn’t grow up learning,” Johnson told jurors just before they went to deliberate. “When you play with fire, you get burned.”
The fire on Aug. 8, 2012, spread to a second car and ultimately crawled up Aitken’s Pistakee Highlands home. No one was injured.
The trial this week was the second for Ziegler, of Elmhurst. Jurors in November failed to reach a unanimous decision, and McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather declared a mistrial.
That jury did, however, convict Ziegler of burglary.
As the latest trial wrapped, prosecutors pointed to what they described as overwhelming evidence of Ziegler’s guilt. A GPS unit last seen in Aitken’s SUV before the fire was found in Ziegler’s pocket the night of his arrest.
“You just can’t get around that GPS in his pocket,” Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Zalud said.
Further testimony revealed that Ziegler threatened to “blow up” Pennington’s house. Witnesses said they saw him looking for materials to make a bomb, and saw him riding a bicycle with a propane tank.
Those same witnesses, defense attorneys argued, provided testimony full of inconsistencies.
On the stand, Dakota Wilkinson, now 20 years old, and Devon Weber, 19, each said they were drinking and using drugs with Ziegler the night of the fire. Police initially questioned the pair as arson suspects, but not before Wilkinson fled from authorities and Weber asked police “How much trouble and I in?” Weber’s shirt was found at the crime scene.
Defense attorneys also argued the state presented no evidence tying Ziegler to the crime. There was no fingerprint evidence, and Ziegler had no traces of flammable material on his clothing.
“[Prosecutors] may have proven an arson, but they have not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Joe had anything to do with it,” Assistant Public Defender Rick Behof said.
In a phone call to the Northwest Herald after the verdict was returned, Ziegler’s father, Keith, said the family stands behind Joseph. Keith Ziegler said his son maintains his innocence.
“All I know is it wasn’t Joe,” Keith Ziegler said, adding the family intends on appealing the verdict.
“We’re not done. The kid is innocent.”