Trial proceedings began Monday for a Fort Atkinson man charged with arson and five counts of attempted first-degree intentional homicide in connection with a fire at a Janesville duplex in 2020.
Jacob Piper, 31, is accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at a duplex in the early-morning hours of May 28. Five people were in the building at the time of the fire and all escaped.
In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Jerry Urbik said the evidence would show that because of "some type of grudge" Piper had, five people in the duplex could've died in the fire resulting from the Molotov.
Witnesses Donald Shannon and Jennifer Moffett, Urbik said, gave similar accounts regarding the incident and the events leading up to it. Urbik said based on their statements, Piper was trying to pursue romantically a woman who was at the duplex but turned him down.
Upon having his advances rejected, Piper left the house the night of May 27, Urbik said. Moffett told an investigator that while she was with Shannon later that night, she heard the sound of someone at the front porch. When she looked to see who it was, she said Piper was holding a bottle with some sort of flame coming out of it.
Moffett said Piper threw the bottle, causing the duplex to catch fire.
Urbik said the prosecution would provide evidence showing the fire was caused by an accelerant, proving a Molotov cocktail or other type of firebomb was used. Urbik said Piper also gave inconsistent answers during questioning and suggested Piper tried to give a false alibi.
Defense attorney Mark Eisenberg objected to several of Urbik's statements and during a recess for the jury, went so far as to say a mistrial should be declared because Urbik's opening remarks could have tainted the jury. Judge Karl Hanson said those objections would be addressed in court Tuesday.
When the jury returned, Eisenberg laid out his defense for Piper succinctly.
“Jacob Piper did not throw a firebomb into that house,” he said, arguing the basis of the prosecution's case relied on witness testimony that didn’t line up to form a singular narrative.
Eisenberg said both Moffett and Shannon gave conflicting stories and regularly changed details regarding where Piper was before the fire. Eisenberg tried to cast further doubt on Moffett’s story, claiming she could not have seen Piper from her bedroom window.
Eisenberg also said there were several flammable items on the porch when the fire broke out after a cookout at the residence the night of May 27.
After the opening statements, Urbik called the prosecution's first witness, who saw the fire from his house on River Street. Christopher Colby said he had gotten up and was using the restroom when he heard a booming sound from down the street. When he looked to see what caused the noise, he said he saw the porch and front door of the Franklin Street duplex on fire.
Colby described the fire as “rolling” down the wooden stairs “like water,” then crawling up the building to the second floor. He said he called 911 and that the police arrived around five minutes later.
Assistant District Attorney Kyle Johnson asked about Colby's experience in the Army and whether he had any experience with accelerants or fires. Colby said yes, which led to an objection from Eisenberg, who said the prosecution had not connected Colby’s Army experience with expertise in analyzing fires. Eisenberg also said not even the fire department could determine the cause of the explosion initially.
The judge ruled Colby’s testimony could include only his account of what happened during the fire that early morning.
Heidi Fairman, Colby’s mother, was next on the stand and gave a statement similar to her son’s. She too had been startled by the booming sound from down the street and saw the fire immediately, then saw people jumping from the balcony shortly thereafter.
The trial will resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, when more evidence is set to be presented and further testimony will be heard.