by: Greg Suskin Updated:
Suyatta Johnson, 28, will spend 10 years in prison for setting a fire that left 25 people homeless, and did more than $600,000 in damage.
It was July 2, 2013, around 4 a.m., and most people at Rock Hill's Oak Hollow Apartments were sound asleep. That's when Johnson lit the comforter on fire that her boyfriend was sleeping under.
"He woke up to the pain and saw her standing over him, looking at him," said Rock Hill Police Detective Amy Jones, speaking in court Tuesday.
The fire quickly spread to other units, and people began screaming.
Detective Jones said police officers rarely listen to the fire department channel on their radios, however, that morning one officer was listening, and he got there and started banging on doors before the fire department even arrived. In fact, four Rock Hill police officers were on the scene before firefighters.
They raced from door to door, and alerted residents to the fire.
A woman who was seven months pregnant was forced to jump from a second-floor balcony, and others were yelling for their sleeping neighbors, trying to get them out.
Laquanta Johnson was there that morning, and will never forget it.
"It was awful. It was scary," she said. "The police came banging on my door saying we had to get out of the building. I said hold up; I gotta get my kids out."
On that day, just hours after the fire, the suspect admitted to Channel 9 on camera that she had set the fire. She first claimed it was an accident and she'd been careless with a cigarette. Police and fire investigators later learned that her boyfriend was leaving her, and she was depressed.
"They were being evicted. He was going to leave her. He said he was going to leave her, and she knew it," Jones said.
"I never meant to kill him. I never meant to kill anyone," Johnson said in court.
On Tuesday, her public defender told the judge that Johnson had two parents who were drug addicts, and she'd grown up in foster care.
She struggled with depression, substance abuse, and had tried to kill herself by taking pills in the months before the fire. She had also lost her children to the Department of Social Services’ custody.
Johnson also had a conviction from 2012 for setting another boyfriend's clothes on fire in a bathtub. Only weeks before the apartment fire, she was charged with resisting arrest and spitting on a police officer.
The judge said he believed Johnson did need mental health treatment, but he also couldn't ignore the fact that she put so many lives at risk.
While the apartment complex continued to rebuild Tuesday afternoon, Johnson stood wiping tears, saying she was sorry for a horrific act.
"I know God has forgiven me for this," she said.
Her former neighbors are just relieved that it wasn't a deadly day.
"A lot of people could've lost their lives, they really could (have)," Laquanta Johnson said.
Suyatta Johnson has been in jail since the day she was arrested a year ago. Before sentencing her to 10 years in prison the judge said it was by the grace of God no one was badly hurt or killed.
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