Prosecution won’t seek death penalty against man who allegedly set deadly fire

By Patrick Kernan -
Homicide and arson suspect Preston Bonnett is escorted off the elevator after his arraignment Friday at the Luzerne County Courthouse. - Sean McKeag | Sunday Dispatch

WILKES-BARRE — Despite his lawyer failing to make an appearance, the Wilkes-Barre man who police say set a fire in Laflin that killed three children entered a plea of not guilty last week.

Meanwhile, prosecutors confirmed they will not seek the death penalty in the case.

Preston Bonnett, 27, faces three charges of homicide and three charges of arson after police say he set the fire that killed Ezekiel Major, 7, Devon Major, 12, and Erik Dupree, 16. The charges of homicide against him are considered open counts, which means he could be convicted of either first- or second-degree murder.

Bonnett’s formal arraignment before Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Vough got off to a late start Friday as Bonnett’s lawyer, the Norristown-based Michael Walker, was nowhere to be found.

Both Vough and First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said they had not heard from Walker to explain his absence. Bonnett also confirmed he had heard nothing from his attorney.

Eventually, Vough decided to proceed without Walker, despite protests from Bonnett.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” Bonnett said. “My rights have been violated already.”

Vough tersely countered, “I don’t care if you’re comfortable; this is the date and time of your arraignment.”

Vough explained to Bonnett his rights would not be violated and that a not guilty plea would be entered on his behalf.

Sanguedolce began enumerating the charges against Bonnett. In addition to the homicide and arson charges, Sanguedolce also said a series of counterfeiting charges that stem from the Laflin home would also be included in Bonnett’s eventual trial.

According to police, Bonnett, along with a woman named Tyla Griffin, had a device used to make fraudulent credit cards along with some counterfeit cards in the Laflin home of Susan Major over the summer.

Griffin had been staying with Major, but when Major discovered the device, she kicked the pair out of the home, according to court records.

Then on Oct. 25, police say, Bonnett returned to the home to burn it down, killing Major’s three children in the blaze.

After Sanguedolce read off the charges against Bonnett, the suspect began to protest the phrasing the attorney was using.

“He’s saying that I did it; he’s not saying ‘allegedly,’” Bonnett said. “It’s the same thing in the newspaper and the media.”

Bonnett continued to argue this point, despite both Sanguedolce and Vough reminding him that all the charges are, for legal purposes, allegations and not statements of fact. Eventually, Vough had had enough.

“For the sixth time,” Vough boomed, “they’re allegations that must be proven in the court of law. That’s enough.”

“Yes, judge,” came Bonnett’s meek reply.

Sanguedolce then confirmed the commonwealth would not seek the death penalty against Bonnett — with Bonnett briefly interjecting this is because they know he isn’t guilty.

After the arraignment, Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said the decision not to pursue the death penalty had been a difficult, but ultimately unanimous, one.

“As horrific as this case may be… we don’t simply look at the crime and the tragic result that may empower emotions in everyone, especially myself,” Salavantis said.

Salavantis said that, after a lengthy process of reviewing the facts in the case, including some which have not been made public, the decision was made Friday morning to not pursue the death penalty. However, she would not reveal the exact reasons that decision had been made.

“What I can say is that I put together a team of lawyers to review this decision in this case with me, and it was a unanimous decision to move forward in this way,” she said. She also said the family of the young victims is accepting of the decision.

Salavantis said that, if Bonnett is convicted, he would likely face multiple life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole.

Vough scheduled Bonnett’s trial to begin oAug. 20. However, this could easily be affected by a potential change in lawyers for Bonnett. Salavantis said it remains to be seen if conflict counsel or a public defender would be appointed for Bonnett to replace Walker.

Phone calls to Walker were not returned.

Bonnett was remanded to the Luzerne County Correctional Facility. Despite his criticisms of the media during the arraignment, he said nothing to reporters on his way out of the courthouse.

Homicide and arson suspect Preston Bonnett is escorted off the elevator after his arraignment Friday at the Luzerne County Courthouse. and arson suspect Preston Bonnett is escorted off the elevator after his arraignment Friday at the Luzerne County Courthouse. Sean McKeag | Sunday Dispatch

By Patrick Kernan

Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan

Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan