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Boy pleads no contest in Oldsmar arson case

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

The teen will be placed in a residential treatment facility and receive the counseling his mother and mental health providers say he needs.

Four hours into his trial on arson charges, 15-year-old Billy Elwell told his attorney he wanted to speak in private.

Minutes later, Elwell returned and pleaded no contest to a first-degree arson charge in connection with a fire that gutted eight apartments in the Village at Old Tampa Bay complex in Oldsmar a few days before Christmas.

As part of his sentence, Elwell will be placed in a secure residential facility, something both mental health providers and his mother have long said is where the teen belongs.

"He is supposed to get psychological counseling. And he really does need that," said Cheryl Elwell, although she was unclear on the extent of her son's sentence.

More than 10 witnesses had testified for the prosecution in Tuesday's trial before the plea came.

"I had already put on a majority of my case," said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Joe Walker.

An arson investigator testified the fire was set by criminal means. And an apartment complex employee testified he overheard Elwell admit to the property manager the day after the fire that he had set it.

Elwell will be held in the county's juvenile detention center for up to 15 days, until a place can be found for him in a secure residential facility. Officials at that facility, where he could receive long-term counseling, will decide when Elwell should be allowed to leave.

Although this was Elwell's first "major involvement" with the juvenile justice system, Walker said, "because of the severity of the offense and the need for services, Mr. Elwell has earned this level of commitment right out of the box. That's an appropriate place for him."

Elwell's mother agrees.

She thought a residential program was where her son would be placed after he was charged with setting the fire. Secure residential treatment programs are designed to help kids who are the toughest to reach, the ones who spend more time on the streets than at home or in school.

In the three years leading up to his arrest in early January, Elwell had racked up 15 criminal charges, including burglary and battery. He had threatened to kill the principal at Carwise Middle School. He ran away from home and cut school repeatedly.

Ms. Elwell said she could not keep him at home. He had run away from home five times since his arrest in early January. In fact, he was on the run for a week until Monday, when authorities picked him up in Oldsmar.

"I hope he gets counseling," Elwell's mother said. "He does need it because he does have problems."

"The aim is to provide him with the services he needs to rehabilitate him and seek adjustments so that he will become a productive member of our community," Walker said.

When he is released, Billy Elwell will be placed under community control, with a probation officer checking to ensure he is going to school and living up to reasonable parental rules, such as meeting curfew, Walker said. Violations could result in him being brought back before a judge for further sanctions. He could be supervised by the Department of Juvenile Justice up to the age of 19, Walker said.

In addition to pleading no contest to arson, Walker said, Elwell pleaded guilty to two charges of trespassing and two charges of criminal mischief, all misdemeanors. The sentence for those charges was included with the arson sentence.

"I think the sentence in this case is a good sentence and fair," Walker said. "It should serve the community's needs and his needs too. We don't want to see him reoffending."

As part of the sentence, Elwell also was ordered to pay reasonable restitution, which will be determined later. Walker said he will talk to the property manager at the Village at Old Tampa Bay to try to come up with a dollar amount.

"I would expect it to be a large figure," Walker said.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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