KANKAKEE — Alex Sawyer has received a 30-year prison sentence for setting a fire to a two-story building in Kankakee that resulted in the deaths of two young brothers in April 2016.
The 65-year-old Sawyer agreed to plead guilty last April to one count of first-degree murder. He entered a blind plea, allowing Judge Kathy Bradshaw-Elliott to determine his sentence. He must serve 100 percent of the sentence.
On Tuesday, Sawyer learned his fate from Bradshaw-Elliott.
Crystal Ward’s two sons — 4-year-old Justice Stewart and 2-year-old JuShaun Watson — died a few days after they were pulled from the second story by rescue personnel on April 13, 2016.
Before Ward read her impact statement, First State’s Attorney Joe Kosman asked her if she approved of the plea agreement.
Ward said one reason she approved was that it would be hard to put the family through a trial and reliving the events. The other reason was she wanted justice for Sawyer killing her two sons.
“You destroyed my life forever,” Ward said. “You took the lives of two of my children. Because of your stupidity, I can never hold my children again.”
Reading from her impact statement, Bonnie Ward, Crystal’s mother said, “I hope God shows no mercy on you. I hope you feel pain.”
Chief Public Defender Gus Regas represented Sawyer, who sat quietly during the hour-long hearing. Sawyer did not speak.
Regas said: “(Sawyer’s) sorry. He wasn’t in his right mind.”
When arguing for a 20-year sentence, Regas appealed to Bradshaw-Elliott.
“Only a monster harms people in a fire. I don’t think Alex is a monster,” Regas said.
Kosman asked for the maximum, 30 years.
“This man should not breath fresh air. He bragged about setting the fire with some people a few days after it occurred,” Kosman said.
Before announcing her decision, Bradshaw-Elliott said the fire was a “horrific crime.”
At the time of the fire, Sawyer was homeless. He also was on probation for being in possession of a stolen vehicle.
Sawyer told investigators he started the fire because he was angry at the building’s owner, Michael Zuccollo. Sawyer said Zuccollo did not return his $550 security deposit back in 2010.
Sawyer was sitting on a mattress on the first floor of the building. He tossed a cigar he was smoking and left. The cigar started the mattress on fire.
Kankakee Fire Capt. Brian LaRoche helped investigate the fire. He said there were 27 people, including 13 children between the ages of 2 months and 17 years old, living in the second-floor apartments. Justice and JuShaun were among several victims taken to local hospitals. Three firefighters were injured when two people jumped before the firefighters could secure a ladder.
Crystal Ward, Lamont Watson Jr., Ward’s mother and Ward’s nine children were at home when the fire broke out some time after 1 a.m.
Watson broke out a window and lowered Ward’s oldest child, a son, to the ground. Watson then handed the son the other children.
Ward fled out of the apartment’s front door with her 11-month-old daughter. She fell down a flight of stairs, and firefighters helped her and the child out of the building.
When Ward, Watson, her mother and the children were reunited, they realized Justice and JaShaun were not with them. Watson was restrained by firefighters from re-entering the building.