Man who set revenge fires in North Park sentenced to 40 years

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – An ex-con who intentionally set a dozen fires over a 90-minute period in North Park to get back at fire department personnel for perceived wrongs was sentenced Tuesday to 40 years in state prison.

Joseph Benenati was given the maximum allowable term by Judge Joseph Brannigan, who concurred with a probation officer who found that the 45-year-old defendant presents a “serious danger to the community.”

“I completely agree,” the judge said.

Deputy District Attorney Christopher Lawson told the judge that Benenati — who was convicted last month of 16 counts of arson and one count of assault with a deadly weapon — “went on a mission to burn down an entire community” on April 5, 2009.

Benenati maintained his innocence.

“I didn't do it. I never hurt anybody in my life,” he said. “I'm innocent of these charges. I'll take that to the grave with me. I think he (Lawson) knows it.”

As Brannigan pronounced the sentence, Benenati let loose with an expletive-filled rant about prejudice, unfairness and wanting to leave the courtroom.

“Be a real Italian. Dust this (expletive),” Benenati said to his parents as they walked out during sentencing.

Defense attorney Lei-Chala Wilson said Benenati — would has a long history of drug abuse — could have been under the influence of methamphetamine when he committed the crimes, citing the findings of a psychologist who evaluated the defendant.

Lawson told the jury that on Jan. 23, 2009, Benenati approached a paramedic unit that he had pointed a gun at two months earlier and said, “I just wanted to see who you were.”

Police were called to the scene at a 7-Eleven in Normal Heights, but no gun was found on Benenati, the prosecutor said.

Five days later, Benenati showed up at the San Diego Fire-Rescue corporate office, where one of the EMTs from the paramedic unit was filling out a report, Lawson said.

The defendant was agitated and wanted information about fire units and noise he said they were making near his home in University Heights, according to the prosecutor.

Benenati was served with a temporary restraining order on April 3, 2009, in which he was ordered not to harass fire personnel. Two days later, Benenati set 12 fires in North Park, Lawson said.

“The defendant went on a rampage,” he said. “He tried to burn North Park down.”

Cars, fences and carports were set ablaze, with one fire sending smoke into a home, Lawson said.

Benenati's attorney told the jury that Benenati didn't set the fires, and that he was called to fire corporate headquarters only after being accused of pointing a gun at the EMT. Wilson said prosecutors had no physical evidence against Benenati, and only one witness who picked him out of a police lineup.

On the witness stand, Benenati accused the prosecutor of making up things about him.

Benenati — who has a 1998 conviction for assault — was also convicted of pointing a gun at an emergency medical technician on Nov. 16, 2008. Lawson told the jury that the defendant “overreacted” when the paramedic unit apparently cut him off near downtown.

Benenati got behind the paramedic truck with his vehicle's headlights off, then pulled around the rig and pointed a gun at the EMT driving the unit, according to trial evidence.

Categories: KUSI