North Park arsonist gets lengthy prison sentence
Joseph Benenati also convicted of pointing a gun at a paramedic
Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 12:45 p.m.
SAN DIEGO A man convicted of setting several small fires in North Park and pointing a gun at a paramedic was sentenced Tuesday to 40 years and four months in prison.
Joseph Benenati, 45, was convicted last month of 17 felony counts, including arson and one count of assault with a firearm. He has several previous criminal convictions, including assault with a deadly weapon in San Diego County from 1998.
After hearing from the attorneys and a series of expletive-laden outbursts from the defendant San Diego Superior Court Judge Joseph Brannigan sentenced Benenati to the maximum term available, calling him “a serious danger to the community.”
The judge also ordered Benenati to pay thousands of dollars in restitution to the victims who suffered property damage from his actions on April 5, 2009.
Deputy District Attorney Christopher Lawson said that Benenati was on a “mission” that day to “burn down an entire community.” He said Benenati had shown a lack of remorse during the trial and in court Tuesday as he repeatedly interrupted the proceedings to disparage the prosecutor, his own attorney and the judge.
“How plastic am I supposed to act?” Benenati asked. “I’m innocent. I’ll take that to the grave with me and I think (the prosecutor) knows that.”
Deputy Public Defender Lei-Chala Wilson argued that her client had a long history of drug abuse. Court records indicated he had been diagnosed in 2006 with paranoid schizophrenia and psychosis, and was taking Zoloft, a medication used to treat depression.
Wilson asked the judge to strike one of Benenati’s prior offenses, which would have made him eligible for a lesser sentence, but the judge declined.
When Brannigan announced the 40-year prison term, Benenati responded: “Is that all?”
Benenati’s parents bristled at all the interruptions. His mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue before she and her husband left the courtroom before the hearing concluded.
As they walked away, Benenati called after them: “I love you. Goodbye!”
Prosecutors have said Benenati set about a dozen fires to fences, cars, trash and structures in the North Park neighborhood between 12:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. A call to the CrimeStoppers tip line provided information that led authorities to Benenati, and a witness identified him in a photo lineup.
According to court documents, Benenati was accused of following an ambulance on Nov. 16, 2008, and pulling a gun on one of the paramedics inside. Benenati was contacted by authorities a second time in January 2009 after he “stared” at the same paramedic who had stopped at a convenience store in University Heights.
Benenati tried to contact the paramedic again at a Mission Valley office building five days later. A restraining order was issued against him in March 2009 to protect the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and San Diego Medical Services Inc., according to the documents.
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