Michael Girder was arrested for arson in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for allegedly setting his duplex on fire over the weekend. A magistrate judge has set his bail bond at $10,000. It is currently not known whether Girder is represented by private a criminal defense attorney.
According to news reports, the fire allegedly destroyed half of the duplex where he lived. It appears that he lived there alone. Girder’s neighbors and landlord speculate that he had gone a little insane after suffering multiple personal disappointments.
“I feel bad for someone to have hit that level … seriously,” said Barclay Garnett, the owner of the duplex. “He just had a meltdown. He’s very frustrated with the system, not being able to practice law. I think it just really took a toll on him.” Garnett had served Girder an eviction notice before the incident. The reasons behind the eviction are unclear.
“I guess he [snapped]. It’s a shame, it really is, it’s kind of a sign of the times,” said Garnett in a press interview.
Girder apparently used to be a lawyer in Georgia, where he used to reside. He is now listed as resigned. He had apparently been trying the pass the bar exam in Florida, but had not had much success.
Thankfully, no one was hurt in the blaze. Several dogs had to be rescued from the back yard of one of the homes, but they did not suffer any injuries either.
Neighbors say that they saw that Girder’s house was ablaze, then saw Girder sailing away in his kayak (the duplex is on the water). One neighbor, Robert Jankowski, says he watched as another neighbor called out to Girder.
“[The neighbor] said, ‘Did you just leave your house?’ To [Girder] and he’s like ‘yeah.’ And [the neighbor]’s like, ‘you know it’s on fire’ and [Girder]’s like ‘yeah.’ And the guy that’s up here asked him ‘what did you do, set it to fire?’ And [Girder]’s like ‘yeah.'” Girder reportedly came out of the water and sat on the bank as firefighters extinguished his home. He was taken into custody without incident.
Josh and Shawna Izworski, also neighbors of Girder’s, were not home at the time of the incident. They were out on their boat when their neighbor called them to tell them that their home, which was directly next to Girder’s, was nearly on fire.
“Where are my dogs, please go get my dogs, tell them to get my dogs, we have two dogs, go get the dogs,” Shawna Izworski, panicked, reportedly told the caller. The dogs were rescued from the couple’s back yard without incident and fire in Girder’s home was extinguished before it could reach anyone else’s residence.
As a criminal defense attorney, I see two basic defenses that may work in this case. First, it seems as though no one other than Girder saw how the fire started. Without any witnesses to testify that Girder caused the fire, prosecutors may find it very difficult to obtain a conviction at trial.
However, to properly assess that probability, a criminal defense attorney will need to thoroughly evaluate the fire marshal’s report. It will be especially important to determine if any accelerants were detected.
However, even if accelerants are detected and the fire marshal rules that the fire was an act of arson, versus accident, it is still unclear how prosecutors intend to link Girder to the fire other than to say he lived at the residence and fled it by kayak as the fire began to consume the home.
In past experience, I have found the conclusions of the fire marshal to be very questionable. Unlike what you see on television, arson investigations are not an exact science. Much of what is concluded is simply conjecture based on some facts discovered during the investigation.
Second, Girder may have a viable insanity defense. According to neighbors, it sounds as though he had a serious mental breakdown due to personal issues. Even if his mental health problems do not rise to the level of an affirmative defense for use at trial, it will most likely present grounds for a mitigated sentence or a downward departure from Florida’s sentencing guidelines.
Based on the description of his neighbors and landlord, Girder sounds like a person who needs help.
Thankfully no one was killed or seriously injured in this blaze. It will be interesting to see how this case unfolds in court.