Wis. Man Gets 15-year Prison Term for Torching Historic Church

June 13, 2007

A judge sentenced a homeless man to 15 years in prison this week for burning down the city’s historic Catholic church, saying the mentally ill man was a danger to the public.

Dane County Judge Steven Ebert sentenced William J. Connell to 15 years in prison followed by 15 years of state supervision, rejecting pleas of leniency from his defense attorney and some Catholics.

“You represent, essentially, a lost and wasted life,” Ebert told Connell, a paranoid schizophrenic who said he was delusional and off his medication when he set fire to the church in March 2005.

A prosecutor said Monday it was the biggest arson in city history, destroying the 150-year-old church that had long been a recognizable part of downtown Madison’s skyline.

The sentence came a day after Madison Bishop Robert Morlino announced plans to tear down the building’s scorched remains and construct a larger cathedral in its place.

Connell, 43, pleaded no contest to arson last summer in a plea bargain in which prosecutors dropped charges of burglary and bail jumping.

He admitted using a crow bar to break into the cathedral and then setting a fire in a room in the church’s steeple area. The fire caused the roof to collapse, burned through the floors and scorched the sandstone walls. Nobody was injured. Connell turned himself into police the day after the fire.

A 90-foot steeple that had been installed months before the blaze survived and will be incorporated into the new cathedral, Morlino said.

Morlino recalled meeting with Connell last year in jail and forgiving him for destroying the church where he worshipped on Sundays and that had housed his diocese since its 1946 formation. In an interview before the sentencing, he said he hoped the judge would show “the maximum mercy possible.”

“I really feel very badly for him and I want him to have the full mercy of Christ,” Morlino said. “This man didn’t intend to commit sin. He wasn’t really aware of what he was doing.”

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