Man ‘guilty’ in Southgate arson case

A man charged with setting fire to several trash cans in front of Southgate Plaza in May 2016 has been found guilty during a bench trial.

Marquel Wattley, 23, stood trial Tuesday in Allen Superior Court on a count of arson, attempted arson and two counts of resisting law enforcement before Noble County Senior Judge G. David Laur, who listened to nearly three hours of testimony before finding Wattley guilty on all counts. Laur substituted for Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck, who is on medical leave.

Witnesses testified about the fires that began in trash cans in front of businesses as well as a computer monitor inside a Burger King restaurant after 8 p.m. May 29, 2016, at Southgate Plaza, 200 E. Pettit Ave.

Bryan E. Yoder, the Burger King manager at that time, testified Tuesday morning he was working the evening shift when an employee told him someone had tried to set fire, or melt, a computer monitor in the dining room. He had a general description of the man with a red jacket and a backpack who left after he had set the fire and then doused it with liquid as employees and patrons were inside the restaurant.

Yoder said as he looked outside for the suspect, he saw a couple of trash cans on fire in front of Peerless Cleaners and Eyes by India and was about to get a fire extinguisher when the Fort Wayne Fire Department arrived. A short time later an employee told him the man, Wattley, was back inside the restaurant. After Yoder summoned a police officer, he witnessed Wattley backing away from the officer and another officer who was called to the scene. An altercation occurred and Wattley ran to the front. Yoder said he blocked the entrance and fell, but continued to hold Wattley’s shirt until he saw a customer and let go of Wattley for the customer’s safety.

The two Fort Wayne Police Department officers, Geoffrey Norton and David Boles, testified they pursued Wattley into the parking lot and apprehended him. Boles testified he suffered abrasions, cuts and scrapes during the process.

Two trash cans – one in front of Peerless Cleaners and the other in front of Eyes by India – were fully involved and spread into the eaves of the businesses. Fire crews prevented the spread of the fires to businesses, but the trash cans were completely destroyed. Fire inside trash cans in front of CSL Plasma and Sally’s Beauty Supply were extinguished before flames escaped and did not spread to area businesses.

The Citilink bus hut behind Southgate and a computer in the eating area at Burger King had been set on fire before the trash-can fires, but sustained minimal damage and was not replaced, resulting in the dismissal of that arson charge Monday.

Surveillance video from Peerless Cleaners was introduced into evidence and showed Wattley setting the fire in front of that business.

Retired property manager Anthony Holtzman testified he had to replace two trash cans, the eaves (or soffitt) to Peerless Cleaners and clean all the store fronts for a cost of $7,437.99.

Wattley’s videotaped police interview revealed he set the fires because there was “not enough to do” since he was unemployed and not going to school. He told police he had been traveling between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.

Wattley was found competent to stand trial in March, but was clearly confused by Laur’s guilty verdict. As a July 7 sentencing date was announced, Wattley seemed perplexed what it was for. Wattley faces one to 12 years in prison.