A Montana man was acquitted of arson in a fire set outside his parents’ house but convicted of trying to make it look like a Yellowstone County sheriff’s detective was responsible for setting the blaze.
Lionel Ellison, 56, was found guilty Wednesday of two counts of fabricating evidence and felony impersonation of a public servant, The Billings Gazette reported.
Prosecutors had argued that Ellison started the fire in March 2013 to frame Detective Frank Fritz, the investigator when Ellison was convicted in 2010 in a separate witness tampering and assault case.
The outside doors of the house were roped shut to make it look like it would prevent occupants from escaping. However, ends of the ropes were tied to movable objects such as a wagon wheel and a flower planter.
Ellison’s DNA was found on the ropes and officers discovered a folding knife with the word “FRITZ” scratched into the handle.
Ellison and his parents identified Fritz as the man who caused the fire. At the time of the blaze, Fritz was with a law enforcement team carrying out a search warrant.
Defense attorney Michael Kakuk argued that just because Ellison touched the ropes didn’t prove he tied them to the doors and started the fire. He also contended there were no witnesses to link Ellison to the knife found at the scene.
Deputy County Attorney Julie Mees countered that Ellison was the only person with a motive to tie the fire to Fritz.
“I don’t care who else had motive,” Kakuk said. “I don’t have to prove somebody else did it. Maybe nobody did it. Maybe it was divine intervention.”
Ellison was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2013 for violating his probation by committing a string of misdemeanor crimes after being convicted of setting fire to his girlfriend’s car in 2007.
Another conviction involved misdemeanor insurance fraud for filing a false claim in which he alleged vandals broke into his house and caused $150,000 in damage.
Ellison’s other contacts with law enforcement include twice being accused of staging his own abduction, once in 2008 the day before he was to be sentenced on the 2007 arson charge and again in 2010 in Park County, at a time he faced sentencing for violating a protective order.
He was not charged in the first claim and an evidence tampering charge was dismissed in the second.
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