University of Northern Iowa Arsonist Released From Prison After 10 Months

September 5, 2008

A man who set fires on the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) campus in 2005 causing millions of dollars in damage has been released from prison, surprising university officials who did not expect his 30-year sentence to be cut to just 10 months.

The court suspended the prison sentence of Tanner Wilkens, 25, to two to five years of probation. In asking for his sentence to be reconsidered, Wilkens’s attorney said his client had received a favorable report from prison officials and has taken full responsibility for his actions.

“I was a little surprised it was this soon,” said UNI Public Safety Director David Zarifis.

Wilkens and Aaron Lessmeier, 23, were convicted and sentenced to three consecutive 10-year terms in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of second-degree arson each in October 2007. They also were ordered to pay the university $2 million to cover its insurance deductible.

Authorities said Wilkens and Lessmeier lit fires in Gilchrist, Lang and Baker halls and a portable toilet during homecoming festivities in 2005. Damage to Lang and Baker halls was minimal, but damage to Gilchrist Hall, the university’s main administrative building, was estimated at $10.2 million. It reopened this week.

Lessmeier has described it as a reckless prank. His attorney is also asking that Lessmeier’s time behind bars be cut short.

More than one year after the fires, in January 2007, Wilkens and Lessmeier were arrested, along with two other men who were UNI students.

The two men, Wilkens’ brother Randy Wilkens and Paul J. Cain, were initially charged with perjury. Randy Wilkens was given a deferred judgment in Black Hawk County District Court in July 2007, which means the incident will be wiped from his record if he avoids legal troubles.

Cain was also given a deferred judgment and was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation in October 2007.

Information from: The Des Moines

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