PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Warwick woman was sentenced to ten years and a day for setting her house on fire and cashing in on an insurance claim.
Louisa Knight, 43, of Warwick, faced a mandatory ten years in prison for one of the charges: "use of fire to commit mail fraud." U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell added on one day for the other charge of mail fraud.
"In some ways this is an easy sentence because Congress took this out of my hands," McConnell said during sentencing. "I don't have much discretion."
Earlier this year Knight pleaded guilty to charges that she set fire to her Fern St. home on July 11, 2011 then later cashed in two checks totaling $44,607 sent to her by Allstate Insurance Company.
As Target 12 first reported, Knight used the firm of outgoing state representative and former Deputy House Speaker John McCauley as an insurance adjustor.
Federal agents executed a search warrant on his firm, McCauley & L'Europa', at 247 Hawkins St. last November. At the time McCauley's business partner William L'Europa told reporters he was aware the firm was under federal investigation.
Neither men have been charged with a crime.
Outside court Knight's defense attorney Paul DiMaio said his client acted alone.
"None of the people from the adjustor's office were involved whatsoever," DiMaio said. "It's something she did herself in stupidity and economic panic."
The U.S. Attorney's office would not comment on the raid at McCauley's firm.
McCauley, who did not return a call for comment, announced in May that he is not planning to run for reelection. He first won the House District 1 seat in November 1990, more than two decades ago.
DiMaio said he initially thought the raid on McCauley's office brought Knight's crime to light, but said he learned through the course of the case investigators were onto his client months before the raid.
"She's not a good criminal," DiMaio said. "Frankly, she told everybody what she doing in the neighborhood."
During sentencing Knight made a tearful plea to Judge McConnell to give her a few more weeks with her teenaged children – who were in court – before having to report to prison.
"I've been helping them to adjust to the fact that I'm going to jail," Knight said. "I don't have secure housing for them, my son is going to be homeless. I'm looking for a couple more weeks."
Knight was denied the request and immediately taken into custody by U.S. Marshals.
"It was a surprise to me … but I believe the judge felt that it was such a traumatic experience for her that maybe she would hurt herself," DiMaio said. "Not for any other reason, he thought it was best for her."
During sentencing Assistant U.S. Attorney William Ferland – who was joined by FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kimberly Lawrence – said Knight's crime was "calculated, it was thought out, it was planned."
"This offense is in fact a violent crime because it put the neighborhood in jeopardy, the firefighters in jeopardy and the police in jeopardy," Ferland said.
Ferland showed a picture of Knight's neighborhood pointing out the homes were tightly packed and at risk of also bursting into flames.
"I grew up in one of those [neighborhoods]," McConnell interjected.
Two firefighters were injured while trying to douse the flames, according to Ferland.
In court to watch the sentencing was Warwick Fire Inspector Matthew O'Donnell who helped investigate the arson. He said the two firefighters were treated at the hospital for heat exhaustion.
"It was a very hot day with high humidity," O'Donnell said. "The fire occurred in the basement which is one of the most difficult fires to fight and also retains the heat much better."
He said he thinks the sentence was "appropriate."
"Hopefully it sends the message that arson is not going to be tolerated in the state of Rhode Island," O'Donnell said.
Knight will face three years of supervised release when she wraps up her sentence, and she was ordered to pay back the insurance company.
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