LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A sobbing mother was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in prison for setting fire to her home and killing two of her children at Fort Campbell, in what prosecutors described as a scheme to escape a rocky marriage and collect on her soldier husband's life insurance policy.
In a tearful plea for leniency, 39-year-old Billi Jo Smallwood showed photo albums and her son's toy chest while professing her innocence to a crime that could have put her in prison for the rest of her life.
"Those are my children, my babies that grew inside of me," she told U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell. "I love them so much." Family, friends and even her jail guards portrayed her as caring, selfless and deeply religious during nearly an hour of testimonials in support of Smallwood, who wept during many of the presentations.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James R. Lesousky Jr. described Smallwood's actions as "premeditated and devious" that justified a life sentence. "She turned her back on those children, and when she did so, she lost two of them," he said.
Smallwood was convicted by a federal jury in Paducah of maliciously setting fire to the two-story housing unit in 2007 while her children slept inside. Prosecutors argued her intent was to kill her husband and cash in his $400,000 insurance policy.
She was convicted of one count of malicious damage and destruction by fire to property owned by the United States, resulting in the two deaths on the Army post straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
The May 2007 fire at the base killed 9-year-old Sam Fagan, and 2-year-old Rebekah Smallwood. Smallwood's husband, Army Spc. Wayne Smallwood, crawled out of a second level window and suffered a leg injury when he jumped. Their toddler daughter, Nevaeh, was not injured. Wayne Smallwood is no longer in the Army.
Smallwood herself suffered serious burns but investigators testified the injuries were consistent with someone setting a fire. Russell mentioned the "powerful and sincere" remarks by Smallwood's defenders while handing down the sentence. Russell also ordered Smallwood to pay $209,000 in restitution for damage caused by the blaze.
Evidence presented at trial indicated she purchased a gasoline container about 12 hours before the fire was set. Remnants of the container were found by investigators in the first-floor dining room, where gasoline had been poured and ignited.
Matthew Cummings, special agent with U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Division, testified during her detention hearing that the doors in the home had been locked from the inside and smoke detectors had been removed.
Cummings said Smallwood told him the family had just returned from a trip to Georgia when the fire was set and they had just $17. Cummings said she was "aggravated" that her husband had gone out earlier in the evening to a VFW club bar.
Prosecutors also pointed to evidence showing Smallwood fabricated her claim that an intruder was responsible and that she received a threatening phone call meant for her husband on the eve of the fire. Records show no such call was received. Her intent, they said, was to divert attention from herself as a suspect.
"The telephone call never happened," Lesousky said Thursday. "It was part of her cover up." Smallwood said she wasn't the person portrayed by prosecutors. She talked of her devotion to her husband and of being thrilled when she found out she was pregnant with her oldest child. She talked about the children in personal terms while describing scrapbook photos.
Her mother and her aunt offered tearful statements asking for leniency. Brenda Napper, a sergeant at the Marion County Detention Center, where Smallwood has been held, said she believes Smallwood's claim of innocence. Napper said it's the first time she's ever felt an inmate was innocent.
Mitchell Embry, a volunteer chaplain who has gotten to know Smallwood during her incarceration, called her "the most faithful, deep-thinking, spiritual person I've been around." Defense attorney Laura Wyrosdick declined to say whether Smallwood will appeal.
Smallwood's trial had been delayed several times over evidentiary issues and appeals.