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Couple avoids jail time after torching car

Duo set blaze in hopes of collecting insurance money on 2006 Pontiac

By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- A New Market couple played with fire but didn't get burned by having to spend any time behind bars for doing so.

Stephen and Jennie Braithwaite, of 112 Tyler Drive, received suspended prison and jail sentences Wednesday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court after pleading guilty to torching one of their vehicles in hopes of collecting insurance on it in November 2009, records state. Their pleas were Alford pleas of guilty, which are not outright admissions of guilt but an acknowledgment that the prosecution may have enough evidence for a conviction.

Stephen Braithwaite, 42, pleaded guilty to arson of personal property and received two years in prison, all suspended, as part of his agreement. He also had four related charges dropped, and pending cases in General District Court were to be dismissed as well.

Mrs. Braithwaite, 39, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor arson and received a 12-month suspended jail sentence while also having four related charges dropped and the commonwealth agreeing to not purse additional charges from the vehicle fire incident. The two are responsible for paying restitution that has yet to be determined.

On Nov. 18, 2009, the New Market Volunteer Fire Company responded to a vehicle fire in the 2800 block of Smith Creek Road and found a 2006 Pontiac GTP unattended and burning, Sheriff's Office Maj. Scott Proctor has said. The car, valued at $10,000-$12,000, had been reported stolen from the Braithwaite residence, and a joint investigation by county Fire Marshal David Ferguson and the New Market Police Department, as well as a confidential informant, revealed that the couple set it ablaze to collect insurance money.

In a May 12 letter filed in court records last week, a witness, Jose R. Ortiz Ramos, provides details about what happened on the night of the incident. He went inside the Braithwaite residence shortly after 9 p.m. and started drinking shots of tequila poured for him, and Braithwaite asked him to talk.

"Frank said 'We are broke. Dude, we are struggling, I gotta torch this bitch, I'll give ya $150 if ya help me,'" the letter states.

Mrs. Braithwaite then went behind the house and came back with a gas can and put it in a Chevrolet Blazer. Ramos, driving the Blazer, then followed Braithwaite to Smith Creek Road as the man drove his wife's car, and both drivers eventually pulled off on the right side.

"Frank came to the blazer and said 'Turn around don't turn off the engine park up there a little bit [pointing behind me] when I come running start driving!!!" the letter states.
Ramos said he did a three-point turn and faced the other way, about 100 feet from Mrs. Braithwaite's car, yet could still see Braithwaite pouring gas into the open driver's side door of his wife's car through the Blazer's rearview mirror. Braithwaite then had the "whole book of matches" on fire and threw it into the car and came running, the letter states. Ramos started driving slowly, with Braithwaite yelling, "Go, go."

"The car was completely in flames," the letter states. "He said, "I love you man, you the real [expletive]."

Upon returning to the house, Braithwaite told his wife, "We did it baby," the letter states.
The woman gave Ramos a shot of tequila and hugged him, but did not hand him any money.

They continued to drink all night, and the police came and told them Mrs. Braithwaite's car was found on Smith Creek Road, Ramos writes.

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