Man admits to April arson fire that killed 13 horses; faces five years on probation

Horse barn fire update

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. (WZZM) - A troubled young man long suspected in an arson fire that killed 13 therapy horses pleaded guilty Thursday to two felony charges stemming from the deadly April 8th blaze in Lowell Township.

Instead of prison, 20-year-old Payton Jonathan Mellema will be placed on probation for five years, with the first three years at a secured residential treatment facility, according to a plea agreement.

“This is a recognition by everybody involved that he really needs some help and we’re going to try to get it for him,’’ defense attorney Jeffery Crampton said. “He was mortified by the whole thing as he watched it go up in flames. He never thought anything like this would happen.’’

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.  

Mellema has been locked up since May 1 in an unrelated case. He admitted to investigators that he entered the barn the night of the fire and chained the doors closed.

“He then used an accelerant and started a small fire in the hayloft that got out of control,’’ Kent County Sheriff’s Detective Aron Bowser wrote in a probable cause affidavit. “Payton stated that he fled the barn and discarded evidence that was previously retrieved by investigators.’’

During an appearance Thursday, Sept. 21 before 63rd District Court Judge Jeffrey O’Hara, Mellema pleaded guilty to third-degree arson, a 10-year felony, and killing/torturing animals, a four-year offense.

Although O’Hara accepted the pleas, Mellema will be sentenced by Kent County Circuit Court Judge Donald A. Johnston. Sentencing has been set for Oct. 31.

In exchange for his guilty pleas, the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office will recommend that Mellema be put on probation for five years, with the first three years to be at a secured residential facility. If the three-year term is interrupted or terminated, Mellema would be sent to prison for between three and 10 years.

“It’s a recognition by everyone involved; neighbors, prosecutors, us, that you’ve got a young man who needs some pretty serious help and we’re all better off if he gets it,’’ Crampton said.

The agreement also stipulates that Mellema stay away from the horse barn and have no contact with its owners. He is also on the hook for restitution, which could approach or exceed $100,000.

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 and charged with tampering with an electronic monitoring device, a two-year felony.

As part of the plea agreement, the tampering charge will be dismissed. The prosecutor’s office also agreed not to charge him with “any other known incidents involving the residents and/or property at 3203 Timpson Ave. SE,’’ according to the plea agreement.

He will also dodge prosecution for “a 2017 fire that occurred at a structure located at the Veen Observatory’’ on Kissing Rock Avenue SE, also in Lowell Township, the agreement states.

“This is something that has been in the works for several weeks in cooperation with the defense, so there has been a lot of time and thought put into it by both sides,’’ Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Kellee A. Koncki said of the plea agreement.

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