Guilty plea leads to prison time for arsonist

Thomas Douty

In a packed courtroom March 30, a remorseful Shane Matthew Knapp received his sentence for unintentionally murdering an 18-year-old woman as a result of an Aug. 5 fire he set in a University Avenue apartment building.
Hennepin County District Court Judge William Howard sentenced Knapp to more than 12 years in federal prison, a $238 fine and ordered him to pay restitution to the victims of the fire.
Knapp pled guilty to second-degree murder charges March 1 for unintentionally killing Letu Hayato by setting fire to the apartment building at 301 University Ave. S.E.
The victim’s brother Akaw Hayato said Letu was sleeping in the living room of their third-floor apartment when the fire broke out. He told the court she woke the rest of the family and tried to leave the apartment through the hallway.
Sister-in-law Furtu Anotta said the rest of the family tried to jump from the third-floor window, but it was too high.
Eventually, firefighters rescued the family from the window.
Akaw Hayato said he could hear his sister crying in the hallway but couldn’t reach her.
Minneapolis firefighters found Hayato’s body near a stairwell in the third-floor hallway.
Hayato came to the United States a few months prior to the fire after fleeing war in Ethiopia and spending four years in a Kenyan refugee camp.
“She just came here to get peace,” Anotta said.
A tearful Knapp told the court and the families of the victim he was sorry for what he did.
“I’m glad I pled guilty. It was the honest thing to do,” he said. “I never intended to harm anybody.”
Psychologist John Cronin testified for the defense that Knapp is a fragile man, the emotional and mental equivalent of a 13- or 14-year-old boy.
Bonnie Bishop, Knapp’s mother, also tried to ease the sentencing by accepting some of the blame.
“There were many years where I was not a good mother,” she said. “I offered up to him a warped sense of what is right.”
She told the court Knapp had a troubled childhood with four father figures, one of whom was involved in drugs and abused Bishop.
Judge Howard said he believed Knapp’s contrition was genuine. But because Knapp set fire to the hallway on the third floor, blocking the exits, he wouldn’t stray from the Minnesota state sentencing guidelines, which recommend from 144 to 146 months in prison.
“I have to weigh that against what happened to the people in the building,” said Howard.
Defense attorney Robert Miller said he was disappointed in the lengthy sentence. He said he hoped Knapp would receive closer to 100 months in prison.
Miller said Knapp will likely serve only about 95 months of his sentence with parole.
At the judge’s recommendation, Knapp will probably be sent to Faribault Correctional Facility and be eligible for work release the final two years of his sentence.
Howard also dismissed two other charges of arson against Knapp and one count of theft by swindle.

Thomas Douty covers police and courts and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at 627-4070 x3233.