A 37-year-old man, who was tracked down after victims made hand-drawn pictures of their attacker, pleaded guilty Wednesday and was immediately sentenced to three years in prison for setting fire to a tent occupied by two homeless people in Santa Ana.
James Anthony Lawlor of Santa Ana pleaded guilty to arson of an inhabited structure, possession of flammable material, criminal threats and assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury, all felonies. As part of the plea deal with prosecutors, a more serious charge of attempted murder with a sentencing enhancement of attempted premeditated murder -- which would have mandated a life sentence -- was dismissed.
The terms of his sentence mean Lawlor will only have to serve about another six months behind bars, according to his attorney, Mark Fredrick.
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The two transients were living on a vacant lot in the 1300 block of West Tolliver Street when they were attacked about 8:30 a.m. Jan. 19, 2018, according to police. Authorities said Lawlor told the homeless man and woman in the tent they had 20 minutes to clear out or he would return with a loaded gun.
When the man partially opened the tent flap, Lawlor kicked him twice in the head, then fled in a black pickup truck and returned five minutes later with a can of gasoline, which he poured on the tent and ignited, Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said.
Two victims in the attack provided investigators with hand-drawn pictures they made of the attacker, including distinct facial hair. A witness also took a photo of the suspect and the truck's license plate, which Orange County Fire Authority arson investigators used to track down the suspect, Bertagna said.
The male victim suffered minor burns as he helped his companion out of the tent, but declined to go to a hospital for treatment, Bertagna said.
Fredrick said the defendant lived in the neighborhood and was worried about the safety of his wife and 12-year-old daughter. He told the homeless man and woman they had to clear out because his wife and daughter pass by the encampment every day, the attorney said.
"The man responded in a fashion that made Mr. Lawlor very concerned for his daughter's safety," Fredrick said. "He had been complaining to the county and city officials and emails to radio stations. He was really making efforts to address the situation in the fashion you would hope everybody would, but it all fell on deaf ears. It didn't help that the government ignored his pleas for help dealing with the situation."
NBC4's Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this report.