The woman responsible for a 2016 Canby Park row home fire that killed three Wilmington firefighters will spend 30 years behind bars.
Judge Eric Davis called for a moment of silence in the courtroom before imposing Beatriz Fana-Ruiz sentence, Friday, December 13, 2019; he called the city of Wilmington and the entire fire department victims in the case.
She had faced a minimum of 17 years in prison, with the potential for a life sentence.
Before delivering the sentence, the judge held a moment of silence for the victims - Wilmington firefighters Lt. Christopher Leach, and senior firefighters Jerry Fickes and Ardythe "Ardy" Hope.
Davis sentenced Fana-Ruiz to 40 years for second-degree murder and 10 years for arson, but between portions of her sentence being suspended and time served, she'll spend 30 additional years in prison.
"I am no monster, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about what happened...I hope the families can find it their hearts to forgive me," said Fana-Ruiz."I’m not a bad person...I’m sorry."
Prosecutor John Downs had pushed for a 25-year sentence for Fana-Ruiz.
"The community was shocked in grief. Nothing today can restore was lost...her self-medication got horribly out of hand and events occurred that resulted in a tragedy...a fire was set without thought of the consequences that would flow from it," he told a judge. "Fana-Ruiz did not want to injure or kill firefighters that night, but she did start a fire in an occupied home...that reckless act caused tragic consequences for individuals, for families, and for this community."
Fana-Ruiz's own stepmother also submitted a victim impact statement, which was read aloud by the prosecution.
"For the last three years we’ve been homeless, living in our cars, not knowing how or when we’re going to eat, not having access to clean clothes or food every day...she has a warm place to stay, a bed to sleep on, and warm meals to eat every day. None of us have been the same since the dramatic events that day," she wrote. "We survived is the hardest feeling to live with--it should've been us. Our lives have been turned upside down and haven’t flipped back since. Strangers blaming us for this heartless act. Your siblings were accused and persecuted for what was done."
After her release from prison, Fana-Ruiz will likely be deported to the Dominican Republic, despite her public defender noting she had immigrated legally in 1994 with her father and two siblings. She no longer has family in the Dominican Republic.
"She was a permanent resident, but these new convictions will cause her to be deportable and excludable," said Kevin O'Connell. "She'll be starting from scratch."
O'Connell said his client suffered a lifetime of abuse and a difficult upbringing. At age 15, she gave birth to her son, Anthony, who's now 15 years old himself.
"She's emotional because of the great sorrow that she feels for the impact that this has had on everyone," he said. "She's a good person, and she's so much more than the events that happened in September, three years, and she feels it very much. When you come into court, and you hear it from the victims and their family members, and you understand the pain that's been wrought by all that's happened, it has a real impact on her, and it has."
Fana-Ruiz pleaded guilty to charges of murder and arson in August of 2019.
"The tragedy tore through our department like a Category 5 hurricane through a beach town. It was our own very personal 9/11," said Rev. Brad Martin with the Wilmington Fire Department, during victim impact statements in the courtroom.
Firefighter Brad Speakman was badly injured in the fire and retired from the Wilmington Fire Department after a long recovery.
Senior firefighter Terry Tate and Lt. John Cawthray also suffered injuries in the September 24, 2016, blaze. Only Cawthray remains on the force. Speakman and victims' family member declined comment after sentencing.
Chief Michael Donohue said the sentencing gives the department a sense of sadness and relief.
"It's never going to bring them back, but it's the best it can be. I hope it gives some relief to the family and the members of the department," said Donohue outside the courthouse. "We'll never forget 'em, there's a lot of young guys on the job that made that fire that will never forget. I'll never forget."
Wilmington Firefighters Local 1590 president Joe Leonetti Jr., said no matter the outcome, it won't bring back their family.
"We're going to push forward, and hopefully, this closes a chapter in the healing process, but this is never going to end for any of us, it might just help make it a little bit better."
Fana-Ruiz said she intentionally set the fire because she was angry with her stepmother over being forced to live in the basement. In court, it was revealed Fana-Ruiz was drunk and high on Xanax when she used body spray as an accelerant and lit a piece of paper to set her step-mother's wooden dollhouse ablaze.
Firefighters Leach, Fickes, and Hope entered that row home upon the belief that victims were trapped inside. No one was inside the home when the first floor collapsed, sending them directly into flames a floor below. Leach and Fickes died at the scene, while Hope suffered severe burns over 70 percent of her body; she died two months later--just four months shy of her impending retirement.
"We've got to live with this for the rest of our lives," he said. "Every day's a struggle. We'll never forget September 24th," said Leonetti Jr.
The firefighters and their families are represented in a civil lawsuit filed against the city of Wilmington.
"Our only hope for justice and family healing is found in our federal civil rights case, where on August 28th...the U.S. Magistrate denied Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki's attempt to dismiss our case," Crumplar said.
The city, former Mayor Dennis Williams, and former Wilmington Fire Chief Anthony Goode, who served time in prison on unrelated theft charges, will head to trial in that case.
Attorneys Crumplar and Tom Neuberger allege the city's controversial rolling bypass and under-staffing contributed to the deaths and injuries of the firefighters.
"We respect what the defendant said that she feels remorse and wants to change, today, we're sorry that the City of Wilmington hasn't shared the same remorse and want to change," said Crumplar outside the courthouse. "So we look forward to the last chapter in this case."
The city has vowed to vehemently defend the lawsuit.
Editors Note: A previous version of this story noted Fana-Ruiz would spend 50 years in prison; she was sentenced to 50 years in prison, but between time served and some portions of her sentence suspended she will spend 30 years behind bars.