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Brenda Jones

Other Arson Exonerations
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In the early morning hours of February 17, 2013, fire destroyed the home and garage of 49-year-old Brenda Jones in Friendship, Wisconsin.

Jones was spending the night with her sister in Reedsburg, Wisconsin when the fire broke out. She told authorities she had been home that afternoon. She also said the roof leaked, that water seeped into electrical outlets, and lights had been flickering. She said she had called an electrician, but he had not yet come to investigate.

On February 28, 2013, the Rural Mutual Insurance Company, which insured the property, declared the home, garage, and contents a total loss. “The fire was electrical in nature,” the insurance investigator wrote in his report. “This is a total loss. Dwelling is gone to ashes, contents are also gone…Detached garage is also gone.”

Adams County Sheriff’s Investigator Brent York interviewed Jones and contacted the local electric company, which said that the power went out around 4:30 a.m. York concluded that an electrical problem caused the fire.

However, more than two years later in April 2015, Jones was charged with arson of a building with intent to commit fraud—to collect about $86,000 in insurance money. At the time, the mortgage on the property had a balance of $73,000.

The complaint alleged that on March 7, 2013, after the fire was declared an accident, Richard Pohlrud, the insurance company investigator who handled the claim, contacted York. Pohlrud reported that Alan Onopa, who had lived with Jones prior to the fire, claimed that he had a tape recording of Jones admitting that she set the fire.

Jones went to trial in Adams County Circuit Court in May 2016. The prosecution claimed that Jones set the fire for the insurance. The defense contended that Onopa had assaulted Jones in an attempt to force her to share the insurance proceeds and when she refused, he fabricated the tape.

York testified that on March 21, 2013, after the insurance investigator told him of Onopa’s claim, he interviewed Jones. She told him she met Onopa in May 2012 and they had lived together for a while. He said she reported that Onopa was trying to extort money from her. According to York, Jones said that on March 4, 2013, Onopa came to the Stardust Motel in Marshfield, Wisconsin where Jones was staying after the fire. York said Jones told him Onopa threatened to tell police that she burned her house down unless she paid him a portion of her insurance settlement.

York said he listened to some threatening voicemails that Onopa had left for Jones. York said he then asked Jones to set up a call with Onopa. During the call, which York said he overheard, Onopa threatened to take his recording of Jones to the insurance company unless Jones paid him $3,500.

During cross-examination, York denied that Jones told him that Onopa had physically assaulted her at the Stardust Motel. York acknowledged Jones told him she had filed a police report of Onopa’s threats. York said he talked to Marshfield Police officer Caleb Bornbach, who took the report, but denied that Bornbach ever mentioned that Jones said Onopa had assaulted her.

The prosecutor asked York, “And have you ever heard anything in terms of this physical altercation that apparently has been stated?”

“No,” York replied.

York also testified that on April 2013, he got the tape after talking to Onopa. During their conversation, Onopa told York that he had recorded Jones talking about burning her house down while they were in a motel in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

York interviewed Jones again on April 30, 2013. She said she was home on the afternoon of February 16, 2013 waiting for electrician Greg Moyer to check on her electricity problem. When he did not show up, she went to her sister’s home. She again denied setting the fire, York said.

Onopa testified and said he had lived with Jones for about two months before the fire. He said the house was rundown, but he was unaware of any fire hazards. Onopa told the jury that Jones told him prior to the fire that she intended to burn the house down to collect the insurance.

In the recording, Onopa said, “But you said earlier, you waited until it got - what did you do, just put a blanket in the heater?”

The voice that Onopa said was Jones replied, “No, lit a match.”

Onopa said, “Babe, so I can’t believe you lit that and it did all that damage. You just lit it with a match?”

“Yeah,” the female voice replied.

Jones’s defense lawyer attacked Onopa’s credibility, noting that he had prior convictions for battery to a police officer and possession of narcotics. Onopa denied he fabricated the tape in an attempt to extort money from Jones.

Jones testified and denied setting the fire. She also denied that the voice on the tape was hers. She said she had never stayed with Onopa at a motel in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

She said she had been concerned about electrical problems in the home—ice dams in the gutters were causing water to seep into the house, causing circuit breakers to pop. An electrician scheduled to come to the house to investigate the day before the fire failed to show up, she said.

Family members testified that the house had electrical problems for several years. Jones’s brother, Billie Mills, said there were light switches next to water faucets and a light pole in the yard with bare wires. Mary Pasholk, one of Jones’s sisters, said water was leaking through the ceiling into electrical sockets. And another sister, Ellen Anderson, testified that she got an electrical shock when she turned on a light.

Steve Wozniak testified he had done roofing work for Jones in 2008—five years before the fire—and took care of some mold problems caused by the leaking water. He said Jones talked to him about electrical problems at the time and noticed that outlets were wet. He said that he replaced part of the roof, but that the whole roof should have been replaced.

Jones also told the jury that on March 4, 2013, Onopa visited her at the Stardust Motel and threatened her. During an argument, she said, Onopa grabbed her by the throat and threatened to report her for setting the fire. After Onopa left, she called Marshfield police and told officer Caleb Bornbach that Onopa had threatened to accuse her of admitting she set the fire unless she paid him money and that he had grabbed her by the throat.

Jones also testified that she reported this assault and Onopa’s threats to York during their meeting to discuss Onopa’s claim that he had a tape recording.

John Rainey, the owner of the Arlington Heights motel where Onopa claimed he made the tape recording of Jones’s admissions, testified there were no records of Jones or Onopa staying there after the fire.

On May 6, 2016, the jury convicted Jones of arson of a building for profit. She was sentenced to nine months in jail and seven years of probation.

Andrew Hinkel, an appellate public defender, was appointed to handle the appeal and persuaded the trial judge to delay the jail sentence pending appeal. When Hinkel concluded there was evidence that Jones’s trial lawyer, who was also a public defender, had not provided an adequate legal defense, Hinkel stepped aside. Cole Ruby, a private attorney, was then appointed to the case.

Ruby filed a motion for new trial in January 2018. The motion claimed that Jones’s trial lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to challenge the admission of the recording into evidence. The motion said that because Onopa made the recording in furtherance of a crime—to extort money from Jones—it should have been excluded from the trial.

The motion also said that the defense failed to locate and the prosecution failed to disclose the Marshfield police report Jones made, as well as follow-up reports made by Bornbach, the Marshfield officer Jones called. Ruby located reports from Bornbach saying he had informed York that Jones said Onopa assaulted her—contradicting York’s denials at the trial.

In fact, Bornbach reported that “York stated that Brenda had also told him that Alan (Onopa) had grabbed onto her neck.”

The reports showed that Jones reached out to police before Onopa ever went to the insurance company or police. The reports bolstered her claim that Onopa was trying to frame her for her refusal to pay him, instead of claiming she was being extorted only after police began investigating.

The motion for new trial said the prosecution also failed to disclose several more of Onopa’s past convictions, which could have been used to further impeach his testimony. In addition, the motion claimed the prosecution failed to disclose a statement Onopa made to his probation officer that was inconsistent with his trial testimony.

The defense investigator also spoke with Dennis Quinnell, a neighbor of Jones. Quinnell said he had been a neighbor for 8 to 10 years. He had installed the well and septic system on the property before Jones bought the home. Quinnell said that he came to the home once when Jones said she had no running water.

Quinnell said that the water pump had been moved inside the house, apparently to keep it from freezing. He saw electrical cables “running all over the place” and heat-tape around the pipe that led from the well outside to the house. The tape, which was designed to keep the water from freezing before it came into the house, was a fire hazard, Quinnell said.

The motion quoted Quinnell as saying that “if wired wrong or wrapped on itself, or if these electrical cables were too thin for the amount of current that would be drawn by the heat-tape and pump, they would get hot and could start a fire.”

Adams County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Wood held a hearing in July 2018 to hear testimony from the witnesses and view the police reports.

On October 5, 2018, the prosecution filed a motion saying that it agreed that had the defense challenged the admission of the tape recording, it likely would have been excluded.

“Onopa may have still been allowed to testify as to the contents of the conversation, but his testimony would have lacked corroboration,” the prosecution said. “Since he was successfully impeached on his memory of the circumstances surrounding the recording, including the location where the conversation took place, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different.”

The prosecution also noted that had the defense obtained the Marshfield police reports, it could have impeached York for testifying inconsistently with what the Marshfield police officer said York told him. The reports “could also have been used to demonstrate that Onopa had a bias and a motive to fabricate evidence against the defendant in the form of a falsified recording or his testimony about the confession. This evidence could have undermined the reliability of both Onopa and York’s identification of the defendant as the voice on the recording.”

The prosecution added, “Since there was no direct evidence of arson in this case, and the fire had in fact been ruled an accident by investigators until Onopa inserted himself in the case, any successful impeachment of a state’s witness bearing on the reliability of the confession is reasonably probable to have changed the outcome of the trial.”

On October 8, 2018, Judge Wood granted the defense motion for a new trial and vacated Jones’s conviction.

Two days later, Adams County Sheriff Sam Wollin placed York—who was seeking election as Adams County Sheriff—on administrative leave. The action was the result of an investigation of an unrelated 2001 incident involving a prisoner who claimed that he was beaten in the Adams County Jail and that York and other officers had covered it up.

During a subsequent civil lawsuit brought by the prisoner (which was settled for $72,000), York gave inconsistent testimony about what occurred, prompting the Wisconsin Department of Justice to notify the Adams County State’s Attorney’s Office that York should not be called as a witness unless the evidence about his inconsistent testimony was disclosed. Following the notification, York was placed on leave.

Nonetheless, York defeated Wollin on November 7 and was elected Adams County Sheriff with 4,860 votes to Wollin’s 4,472 votes.

On November 12, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charge against Jones. In August 2019, Jones filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation from York and Adams County for her wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/15/2018
Last Updated: 8/29/2019
State:Wisconsin
County:Adams
Most Serious Crime:Arson
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2013
Convicted:2016
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:9 months
Race:White
Sex:Female
Age at the date of reported crime:49
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No