Ex-Whiteland firefighter sentenced to work release for arson

A former Whiteland firefighter was sentenced to work release Friday after pleading guilty to committing a string of arsons in 2020.

Jake Dougherty, 20, of Needham, was sentenced in Johnson County Superior Court 3 Friday afternoon to 12 years for three counts of arson, a Level 4 felony, for starting multiple fires in June 2020. All 12 years of Dougherty’s sentence will be suspended, with up to 10 years of work release and two years probation. He received a jail credit of 248 days for time he has already served.After two years of work release without an incident, he can seek a sentence modification, said Prosecutor Joe Villanueva.

Dougherty also must pay more than $150,000 in restitution to Ryan Homes, Westport Homes and JCREMC, which owned the properties where he set the fires.

Dougherty joined the Whiteland Fire Department in February 2020 and was fired from the department following his arrest. He was charged in the June 2020 and pleaded guilty to the charges in August 2021.

The Franklin Police Department responded at about 6:30 a.m. June 16, 2020, to a report of a vehicle driving erratically on U.S. 31. Police stopped the vehicle and determined Dougherty was impaired. He was transported to Johnson Memorial Hospital, police said at the time.

Police also noticed a gasoline odor coming from Dougherty and soot all over his skin and clothing, police said.

Because several structural fires were reported that morning in the area, officers investigated Dougherty as a suspect. Through a series of interviews, detectives from multiple local agencies, the Indiana State Fire Marshall’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) ruled Dougherty a suspect in setting three fires at the following locations:

  • Intersection of Campus Lane and Shirk Way Street, Greenwood, around 2:44 a.m.
  • 200 Block of Darrough Drive, Greenwood, around 4:24 a.m.
  • Cul-de-sac of Wild Turkey Run, Whiteland, around 7:31 a.m.

On Thursday, prosecutors argued Dougherty should serve 10 years in prison, saying there were aggravating circumstances. There was over $300,000 in physical damage caused by Dougherty’s actions. The builders who were affected also had a potential loss of revenue, and two homeowners whose lots were burned were displaced and suffered effects from his actions, Villanueva said in court.

Dougherty had also violated the terms of his bond twice as the case made its way through the justice system, both times for drinking while underage and driving while under the influence of alcohol. In March 2021, Greenwood Police arrested him for underage drinking but he was not charged. In February, he was arrested, charged and later plead guilty to a misdemeanor operating a vehicle while intoxicated in Fountain County, Villanueva said.

Prosecutors acknowledged that Dougherty was drinking and suffering from mental health issues when the incidents occurred, but said he clearly had his wits about him on the morning of the arsons. That’s because he took the license plate off his car before committing the crimes, so police would not be able to identify him as easily. Consuming alcohol was a conscious choice, Villanueva said.

Villanueva believed Dougherty had the makings of a “firebug.” In a videotaped interview with Franklin Police, Dougherty told detectives that after lighting one fire, he stayed until he felt his ears get hot. He also posted a photo on social media that showed a fire he had set from a distance. The photo was captioned with language similar to “RIP,” Villanueva said.

Defense attorneys argued that jail time would not be good for Dougherty, because he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His family has done everything possible to try to help him, Russell Johnson, Dougherty’s attorney, said in court Thursday.

“His family has fought with everything they have to get him help,” he said.

Dougherty, his family, and his attorney had tried to get him into the county’s mental health re-entry court. However, the court did not accept him because he pled guilty and official believed he would be going to prison, Johnson said.

Johnson told Judge Douglas Cummins putting Dougherty in prison would make his mental health worse, and the court should intervene so this does not happen, Johnson said.

“I choose to help, the state chooses to punish,” he said.

In a letter read to the court by Dougherty, he apologized for what he had done and to those he hurt, saying he had made the “biggest mistake in his life.” Later, his voice breaking, he told his family and his parents he is sorry.

“I apologize for what I put them through,” he said.

After hearing both sides on Thursday, Cummins reset the sentencing hearing for Friday afternoon. He said that he needed more time to consider what sentence to give Dougherty.

Friday he said he spent a long time debating on what sentence to give Dougherty. Despite Dougherty’s mental health issues, Dougherty was self-aware enough to know drinking would exacerbate those issues, Cummins said.

Cummins also brought up a presentencing investigation completed in November, that showed Dougherty was reluctant to answer a probation officer’s questions. The reluctance presented a concern to the court, he said.

With the sentence, Cummins is giving Dougherty a chance to prove he can recover without additional jail time, but with supervision on work release.

However, Cummins warned Dougherty that if he finds himself in trouble again, he will be sent to prison.

“Your future is on you,” he said.