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Son accused of killing mother was on probation

The suspect faced a Texas judge two months before for arson. A plea deal called for probation and counseling.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


A Texas judge put James Utsey on probation in an arson case just two months before Citrus authorities accused Utsey of murdering his mother, records showed.

Sheriff's officials have said Utsey chased his mother to a DeRosa convenience store Dec. 27 and fatally shot her.

Utsey's Florida record contains only one prior case: a concealed weapons charge from Daytona Beach Shores. He was not prosecuted.

But Utsey also has a record -- a very recent record -- in the Lone Star State.

On Oct. 5, Utsey accepted a plea bargain that called for him to serve two years of probation, pay restitution and "remain in psychiatric counseling," court records showed. He admitted torching a historic home south of Houston.

Utsey, 30, is charged with first-degree murder and fleeing a law enforcement officer. He faces life in prison or possibly the death penalty if convicted.

Much about the murder case remains unclear. If Utsey was the killer, what was his motive? What precipitated the attack? Why would he hurt Barbara Utsey, the woman who helped him so many times?

Perhaps the answers will emerge during trial, which probably won't start until next year. Utsey, held without bail at the Citrus County Detention Facility, has pleaded not guilty and isn't answering questions publicly.

But one thing is certain: Utsey is no stranger to trouble.

The arson happened in March 1999 in Bay City, Texas, which is south of Houston. Utsey, who worked for a nuclear power company, was in town to help a nuclear plant handle a shutdown.

Bay City police arrested Utsey a few days after the blaze. He was staying at an Econo Lodge. The reports said police found a rifle and ammunition in Utsey's truck and a pistol and more ammunition in his backpack.

Utsey didn't resolve the case in court until Oct. 5, 2000. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, criminal mischief. The plea bargain called for him to serve two years of probation, pay court costs and remain in counseling.

Court documents indicate restitution was paid. It does not say how much money was involved, but a case witness said the burned house was a two-story wood-frame structure that recently had been recognized as a historic building.

Utsey provided a statement to police. Police also took a statement from one of Utsey's friends, Russell C. King.

Utsey told police he arrived in Bay City on March 22, 1999. He worked in health physics.

According to that statement, Utsey said he "was having some problems with a few employees at the plant." He did not elaborate, except to note the problems were both personal and work related.

He said he "wouldn't just start shooting any of his co-workers," but could see himself targeting some, according to a report that Bay City Sgt. Andrew Lewis Jr. filed.

King told police he met Utsey in 1993, when both worked at the plant. They renewed the acquaintance in 1998 and then again in March 1999, when Utsey was in town working.

Utsey told police that on March 26, a Friday, he left work and filled two red plastic cans with gasoline. He then went to King's room at the Bay City Inn Motel to drink beer.

The men told police they wound up riding around town. The men stopped at a park to drink more beer. Utsey poured gasoline into an empty Jim Beam whiskey bottle.

"I asked him what he wanted me to tell people when he blew himself up. He just laughed," King told police.

King said Utsey drove them to an abandoned Long John Silver's restaurant, where Utsey set fire to a palm tree. The fire quickly died.

"I was thinking that this guy was acting incredibly irresponsible," King told police.

The men resumed driving until Utsey found an abandoned house at 3101 Avenue F. King said they stopped and his friend took the whiskey bottle and lit a rag that was sticking from it.

King said he walked away disgusted and caught a ride back to his motel.

Police arrested Utsey March 28.

"I decided to use the fire bomb to burn the house down," Utsey eventually would tell police. "The back door was unlocked, so I went about 10 feet inside the house and poured gasoline into a couple of the rooms. I then poured a trail of gas back towards my truck."

Why did Utsey choose that house? "I think he saw it and it was an opportunity," said Lewis, the police sergeant, during a telephone interview last week.

When Lewis asked Utsey his reason for selecting the house, Utsey gave this answer: "It would make a big fire."

Utsey stayed in jail until July 15, 1999, police said. It's unclear why the case wasn't resolved in court for another 15 months.

Also unclear was how Utsey could live in Florida while on probation in Texas. It's possible he received permission from his probation officer or had the court supervision transferred to this state.

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