Fire that killed 13 therapy horses delivered 'ghastly blow,' convicted arsonist told

Payton Mellema pleaded guilty to setting a barn on fire.

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - A man who set fire to a barn near Lowell, killing 13 therapy horses, delivered a “ghastly blow’’ to the community, horse owner Kat Welton told the convicted arsonist at sentencing Tuesday.

“The fire that you started has disrupted every part of my life and has shocked me to the core,’’ Welton  told a packed courtroom. “My life, my family, my work, my dreams, my community has suffered a ghastly blow. I will not be the same.’’

Welton, founder and director of The Barn for Equine Learning, directed her comments to 21-year-old Payton Mellema, a neighbor who admitted to setting the April 8th blaze.

Mellema looked down as Welton and her mother spoke, both describing the loss the fire caused.

“Let that image stay with you of 13 innocent horses. Jailed in their stalls, falling to their knees and dying in a fire that you started. You chained the doors. You ran away. You never called for help,’’ Welton said. “This trauma has impacted every part of my life.’’

Welton’s mother, Susan Heggen, said the therapeutic equine program was a place where people could go to feel safe.

“My daughter started this barn three years ago and with nothing more than a dream of putting horses and kids together – particularly those who have a little less in life than most,’’ Heggen said.  “I mortgaged my house to build this barn and help her realize her goals.’’

The fire, she said, had a devastating impact on the family and the community.

“We cry daily, often trying to hide it from one another because we are unwilling to stimulate more sadness,’’ Heggen told the court. “I still can’t believe how these creatures, who were so loved and cared for, could have died like this.’’

Mellema in September pleaded guilty to third-degree arson, a 10-year felony, and killing/torturing animals, a four-year offense. Instead of prison, a plea agreement called for Mellama to spend five years on probation with the first three years at a secured mental health treatment facility.

There was a caveat: If a suitable treatment facility could not be found, probation would be terminated and Mellema instead would go prison for between three and 10 years.

As of Tuesday, a treatment facility has not been found, defense attorney Jeffery Crampton said. Kent County Circuit Court Judge Donald Johnson said unless a treatment facility is found in the next 119 days, Mellema will be sent to prison.

“If you are to be placed in a secure and approved mental health facility for a three-year term, it will have to be achieved within the next 119 days,’’ Johnston said. “If it is not, then the fallback position would call for a minimum term of confinement with the Department of Corrections for three years.’’

The 119 days is the balance of time left on a one-year jail sentence that was part of the plea agreement.  Mellema is being credited with time served since being locked up on May 1 along with other time credits.

“The clock is running; we’ll see what develops,’’ Johnston said.

Outside of court, Crampton said a treatment facility would be the best resolution.

“It’s very important to find a facility that’s secure so the community feels safe but that can also treat all of the issues that Payton has,’’ Crampton said. “It’s very hard to find those as an adult. We’ve been looking, we’ve come close a couple of times and we’ll still keep looking.’’

Mellema, he said, has been “very remorseful all along.’’

“He never meant for this to happen,’’ Crampton said. “He was playing with fire, it was obviously an impulsive thing and it got out of control in a hurry.’’

Mellema is also on the hook for restitution, which will be determined at a later date. Crampton said the amount could exceed $200,000 and possibly approach $300,000.

Mellema has a history of mental health issues and had been banned from setting foot on property housing The Barn for Equine Learning on Timpson Avenue north of 36th Street SE, where he once served as a volunteer. Mellema lives next door and has been accused of entering the barn without permission and cutting pasture fences. 

At the time of the fire, Mellema was on probation for a 2016 home invasion conviction. He broke into a neighbor’s home and stole a .22 caliber firearm.  Shortly after the April fire, Mellema was outfitted with an electronic ankle tether as an amendment to his probation. 

Mellema wore the tether for 18 days before cutting it off on April 30. He was locked up in the Kent County Jail the next day.

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