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Will justice be served in arson case?

A man charged with torching the Little League building finds out Thursday if he will get a new trial or be released.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 12, 2002


PALMA CEIA -- Gregory Sinadinos felt relief when a man accused of burning down the Palma Ceia Little League clubhouse was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Finally, some good news to tell the 400 players distraught over the fire. Justice had been served.

Or so he thought.

On March 8, about two years after the conviction, the 2nd District Court of Appeal threw out the ruling, saying authorities did not have the proper paperwork to search the suspect's apartment on Davis Islands.

To players and parents, the decision hit like a ball in the nose.

"It was hard enough to explain to them how someone could burn down the Little League building," said league president Sinadinos, who attended the trial with his three children, ages 7, 9 and 14. "How am I going to explain this?"

Kenneth Ingraham was found guilty in March 2000 of burglarizing and setting fire to the league facilities on Himes Avenue. Judge Barbara Fleischer sentenced him to 40 years, the maximum under the state's habitual felon guidelines.

Ingraham, now 36, appealed on grounds that the search warrant investigators used to obtain evidence against him was too general.

"They went there purely on a hunch," said his attorney, Fred Vollrath, who was assigned the case by the Public Defender's Office. "They said, 'We think there is evidence of arson there.' You can't do that."

The warrant, approved by a judge, gave fire investigators the right to search Ingraham's apartment for clothing, shoes and other evidence relating to the crime. It gave no details, such as the clothes would smell like gasoline or the shoes would match the size of the footprints left at the scene.

The search yielded several items allegedly used in the crime, including a drill, bolt cutters and other tools. Authorities also found an American flag and a money box believed missing from the clubhouse.

The evidence ultimately led to Ingraham's conviction.

Defense attorneys sought to suppress the search warrant during the trial, but the judge allowed it. Even prosecuting attorney Anthony Arena, who successfully fought to keep the warrant, said it was a close call.

He urged parents and the children involved not to lose hope in the criminal justice system.

"This conviction being overturned is not in any way a statement that he didn't do it. It's merely a statement that if you prove it by doing a general search, it's not going to hold up," said Arena, who got involved with the case after the warrant was issued.

Ingraham, currently in state prison, is scheduled to appear in court Thursday to learn what will happen next. The state could pursue a new trial.

The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office hasn't yet decided, but spokeswoman Pam Bondi said the appellate court's ruling excluded much of the evidence.

Little League officials say his release appears imminent. They dread having to explain it to players.

"It seems like an open and shut case to us, but someone didn't do their job and didn't issue the search warrant correctly," Sinadinos said. "That's very unfortunate."

The fire caused about $360,000 in damage, none of which was recovered because the league had no insurance. To rebuild, league officials and parents raised about $310,000 in donations and took out a loan from Regent's Bank to cover the rest.

To date, they have $35,000 left to pay off.

If Ingraham is released, league officials fear he could commit another crime or, possibly, return to the ballpark. Just in case, some parents have suggested posting photographs of him around the fields.

The league has considered filing a civil lawsuit against Ingraham to try to recoup some of the losses, but has no money to hire a lawyer. And because of the court ruling, it also lost its right to collect money from Ingraham after he served his prison term.

Sinadinos said it's a tough lesson, even for adults to understand.

"It doesn't feel good," he said. "It's a sticky issue. I don't like people's rights to be violated but, right now, you have 400 kids who are the losers in this one."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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