By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
The Quincy man who started the fire that ultimately brought down the historic Newcomb Hotel in downtown Quincy last year avoided prison on Thursday.
Mathew C. Clark, 25, was sentenced to 48 months probation, 364 days in the Adams County Jail and ordered to pay the city of Quincy $497,364.52 in restitution by Judge Scott Walden during a hearing in Adams County Circuit Court. Clark was hunting for scrap metal inside the building at 400 Maine on Sept. 6 when he accidentally started a fire in the vacant building.
Clark pleaded guilty in February to one count of burglary in exchange for a sentencing cap of 4 1/2 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. First Assistant State's Attorney Gary Farha asked Walden to send Clark to prison and asked for the maximum sentence allowed under the plea agreement. Walden went along with a recommendation by the Adams County Probation Department and gave Clark the longest term of probation allowed by law.
"I can't say that you are someone who belongs in prison," Walden told Clark.
Farha gave several reasons why he believed Clark deserved to serve prison time. He said there should be serious consequences for Clark's actions that night when he went looking for scrap metal. Clark told Quincy police investigators that he started a fire inside a can he used as a lantern while hunting for scrap metal inside the vacant hotel at 400 Maine. Clark told investigators that he dropped the can on a blanket and started a fire, then panicked and fled without reporting the blaze. The 125-year-old abandoned building was destroyed in the five-alarm fire.
"He could have saved the fire from spreading and becoming the catastrophe that it was," Farha said.
Although Clark had no previous felony convictions, Farha said Clark had a previous stealing offenses on his record and this was his fifth property crime.
"The type of burglary and the conduct Mr. Clark engaged in causes harm to a number of people in our community," Farha said. "Scrapping is a huge problem in our community. He knew he was committing a crime and because of his actions, a fire started and a building burned down."
Clark's attorney, Public Defender Brett Jansen, lobbied Walden for probation. He said Clark had mental health issues at the time that weren't being addressed. Since Clark has been in the Adams County Jail, Jansen said his client has been taking medication and is thinking more clearly now.
"Mr. Clark doesn't have the mental capacity and wasn't thinking clearly to realize the consequences of what he was doing at the time," Jansen said. "Mr. Clark has limited mental capabilities, which is part of the reason why this happened."
Clark asked Walden to give him a chance at probation, saying he would do whatever the Probation Department wanted him to do. Clark said he tried to get help for his stealing problem by going to Transitions a few months before the incident, but he never followed through with that treatment.
"You make it sound like you're a victim somehow," Walden said. "You didn't get help, so that explains why you did what you did."
Walden ordered that Clark live with his parents while he is on probation. He also said Clark must make every effort to start paying down the large amount of restitution in the case. The Probation Department calculated that it would take Clark nearly 83 years to pay full restitution if he were to pay $500 a month toward the total.
"Given his job history and background, there is no way he will be able to pay that off," Farha said. "Unless he wins the lottery, this restitution will be very difficult to make."
Clark had been jailed since his arrest on Sept. 16. He was given credit for 193 days already served in the Adams County Jail. With day-for-day credit, Clark already had served enough time to satisfy the 364-day jail term that Walden ordered. He was released from jail on Thursday.