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Handyman sentenced in Little Caesars case

A handyman who testified in court that he was following a franchise owner's orders in attempting to burn down an Ashland Little Caesars was sentenced to probation today after pleading guilty to a lesser felony.

Brian Vernon Morris, 49, was convicted in Jackson County Circuit Court of first-degree criminal mischief for damaging a natural gas line at the pizza franchise. The line had been connected to a tankless water heater at the business.

In October, Morris entered a guilty plea to attempted first-degree arson as part of a plea agreement offering a reduced sentence for his testimony against franchise owner Mark Alan McAlister. After McAlister was acquitted May 4 on three charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree arson following a six-day trial, prosecutors adjusted Morris' charge. Deputy District Attorney Nick Geil dropped a misdemeanor charge of driving while suspended during today's hearing.

McAlister's attorney Bill Francis submitted a motion seeking to add McAlister as a victim. Circuit Judge Kelly Ravassipour denied the motion, telling Francis she understood the motion's intent was to allow McAlister to sue Morris for civil damages.

Geil said the state considers Avista, the owner of the gas line, the sole victim in the case. The utility company discovered the damaged gas line Feb. 14, 2014, after receiving reports of strong gas odor from nearby businesses.

"Just for the record, the state is not considering Mr. McAlister a victim in this case," Geil said.

Morris' court-appointed defense attorney, Christine Kantas Herbert, said Morris was "pretty desperate at the time" and believed he'd been instructed to set fire to the business by setting candles near the opened and damaged gas line, before having a change of heart and botching the job.

Ravassipour said that after spending more than a week presiding over the McAlister trial and hearing Morris' testimony, she's still unsure what Morris was thinking when he damaged the line.

"I really still can't get my head around what happened," Ravassipour said.

Morris was sentenced to 18 months' probation, 10 days' jail with credit for time served and restitution to be determined by Avista. Ravassipour said she had no objection to Morris' probation transferring to Butte County, Calif., where Herbert said Morris had found work. She said Morris should be grateful no one was injured. 

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.