PERRY -- Thomas Wayne McFarling is expected to serve six months to one year in the Houston County jail after he was convicted of burning down his home in an attempt to collect insurance money.
Superior Court Judge Katherine K. Lumsden sentenced the 54-year-old McFarling on Friday to 10 years in prison for arson but suspended that sentence to one year in the county jail. McFarling is eligible for the jail’s discretionary policy of 2-for-1 days served for good behavior.
Lumsden also ordered McFarling to pay a $5,000 fine and serve 100 hours of community service.
McFarling was sentenced the day after a Houston County jury found him guilty of arson in the March 15, 2008, fire that destroyed his Mossy Lake Road home and all the family’s belongings, including pets and precious heirlooms.
No one was injured in the fire. McFarling unsuccessfully filed an insurance claim on the home valued at $294,300.
His trial was marked by conflicting testimony among experts for the prosecution and defense about whether a petroleum residue detected in the fire debris was indicative of arson. Public safety personnel testified that McFarling raised their suspicions with his story of escaping the fire by diving out a bathroom window based on their observations that his white T-shirt was clean, he did not reek of smoke and had no cuts or bruises.
Until the jury’s verdict Thursday, McFarling was free on bond for seven years pending trial.
Lumsden noted the “extraordinary delay” in the prosecution of the case factored heavily in her decision because it gave McFarling an opportunity to prove himself “as a law abiding citizen.”
The judge suggested that McFarling’s community service be linked to fire service but also noted that might be burdensome for firefighters. As a result, she left the terms of the community service to McFarling’s probation officer.
Before rendering her decision, Lumsden heard from prosecution and defense attorneys, the county’s fire chief and several of McFarling’s supporters -- including his wife, boss, neighbor, sister and church member. More than 30 people packed the courtroom on his behalf.
“When there’s a case that comes in that is not of an accidental nature ... that actually puts ... my men and women in jeopardy, then I think that needs to be considered as part of some punishment or otherwise,” fire Chief Jimmy Williams told the judge.
Prosecutor Dan Bibler sought a prison term of 10 years for McFarling.
“When (firefighters) are called out to a scene which is intentionally set for no other reason than ... to collect insurance money, that is a serious thing that cannot be overlooked,” Bibler said.
McFarling’s attorney Laura D. Hogue of Macon argued there are other means of punishment than a prison cell.
“The idea that this court has now declared him a felon in the court to the community is a punishment when you’re a man like Tommy McFarling,” Hogue said. “And to be required to prove yourself, to re-earn the public’s trust and respect is a punishment.”
McFarling’s boss, Ben Copeland, described him as a model employee.
“You can fake a lot of stuff, but it’s pretty hard to fake character,” Copeland said. “It’s pretty hard to fake compassion, love for your fellow man and joyfulness in doing your job ... and Tommy has exhibited all of those -- a great track record.”
Neighbor Amanda Robins said McFarling was the first to welcome her and her husband to the neighborhood and was always willing to lend a helping hand.
“A few months ago there was a child (who) went missing in our neighborhood, and Tommy, it’s freezing cold out, and he’s walking around with a flashlight through the woods looking for this little boy,” Robins said. “He and Tonya were the only ones out of our neighborhood to do that, and I found that amazing in a person.”
Tonya McFarling said she and her family cannot make it without her husband to care for them. She said the weight of the fire has created its own prison for her husband.
“Trust me, he’s been in prison,” she said. “I have laid there and held him when he’s cried that he couldn’t protect us, that he couldn’t get our dogs out of the house, that he couldn’t protect all of the kids’ things that I’ve been saving since they were born.”
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559l.