Judge sentences man who set deadly 7-alarm fire in Watauga County

VALLE CRUCIS, N.C. — A judge sentenced a man Tuesday morning to more than 30 years in prison for setting a deadly fire in Watauga County.

[PHOTOS: 7-alarm fire in Watauga County]

Benjamin Williford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree arson and three counts of assault in connection with the fire Valle Crucis.

Prosecutors said he set the fire at the Valle Landing Shops and Restaurants in August 2016 because someone at one of the businesses owed him money.

"The defendant burned th building down because an employee of one of the shop tenants owed him money," said district attorney Seth Banks. "According to the tipster, the defendant did not know that anyone lived above the shop."

Several people had to jump to safety to escape the flames, but one shop owner, Macie Pietrowicz, died while trying to get out.

Gereta Dove, Pietrowicz's mother, fought back tears as she talked about her daughter being unable to escape the fire.

"Our whole world has forever been flipped upside down, inside out, backwards, and my heart totally has stopped beating. There are no words to adequately express all the sorrow," Dove said.

(Click PLAY to watch raw video of the fire)

It was revealed in court Tuesday that deputies had infrared video from a nearby camera of the fire being set and also a gun left at the scene with Williford's DNA as evidence in the case. Deputies and SBI agents traced Williford to Cherokee where he was arrested while he was gambling in one of the casinos.

Williford apologized for his actions that led to the massive seven-alarm fire.

"I'm so, so sorry that I caused all of this pain. I'll dedicate my life in prison to serving the Lord," Williford said.

The judge also ordered Williford to pay over $500,000 in restitution.

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