A fire that gutted a shuttered diner on Motel Drive on Feb. 11 was started by a homeless man who was trying to stay warm, authorities told the Sun-Star on Wednesday.
Jay D. Jackson fell asleep inside the vacant Carrow’s building with the fire burning. When he awoke, flames had spread out of control and the building was consumed. The fire nearly leveled the former restaurant, causing about $1.5 million in damage.
He was arrested a few days later.
Jackson, 53, on Tuesday pleaded no contest to a felony count of arson. He will be sentenced to six months in jail and four years of probation, according to Walter Wall, the Merced County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.
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He entered his plea before visiting Judge Donald Shaver in Merced Superior Court.
The investigation was conducted by Merced’s Fire Investigation Unit, the Merced Police Department Disruptive Area Response Team and UC Merced detectives, including the lead investigator, Capt. Morgan Madruga with the Merced Fire Department.
“Once we began our investigation, we didn’t believe he started it with any malicious intent,” Madruga told the Sun-Star. “It was a warming fire that got out of control, and he wasn’t able to put it out before he left the scene.”
Wall also described the fire as “accidental” but said it was set “recklessly.”
“It was some guy trying to stay warm, but the damage was substantial,” Wall said.
Jackson’s defense attorney was not available for comment Wednesday.
The once-popular eatery in Merced closed its doors in 2015, laying off nearly two dozen employees.
Madruga said firefighters hope the public understands such fires will be investigated aggressively.
“We want people to understand, if they’re camping in a building that doesn’t belong to them and not treating it with respect and a fire gets out of control, we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure those cases are able to be prosecuted,” the fire captain said. “We have good interagency cooperation and we all work hard to make sure these cases are investigated.”
Jackson’s criminal history in Merced County dates to the late 1980s and includes numerous drunken-driving, drug and theft-related convictions, court and jail records show.