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Estranged husband admits murdering prominent restaurateur in arson fire

SALT LAKE CITY — The estranged husband of restaurateur John Williams pleaded guilty Tuesday to trapping the prominent Salt Lake man in his home and setting it ablaze, killing him.

Craig Crawford, 48, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and aggravated arson, first-degree felonies. Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against Crawford.

When Crawford is sentenced, he faces the potential of either life without parole or 25 years to life in prison with a chance at parole. That sentencing hearing will be scheduled Friday morning.

Jim Bradshaw, Crawford's attorney, said Crawford had been insistent on pleading guilty to the charges against him.

"He has extreme remorse for the horrible act that he committed, he very much wants to accept responsibility and move forward with this because he wants to give closure to the family he has hurt so badly, to the community," Bradshaw said.

Crawford intentionally set fire to the Capitol Hill house he had shared with Williams, 72, who had filed for divorce earlier in the month.

Crawford started the fire in the foyer on the second floor of the four-story house at 574 N. East Capitol St., in the early morning hours of May 22, 2016, police said. The blaze rendered the stairway to the upper levels unusable, trapping Williams in the fourth level bedroom where firefighters found him dead on the floor.

An autopsy determined Williams died of smoke inhalation.

Crawford's plea brought visible emotion in the packed courtroom and as friends and family of Williams spilled into the hallway.

Amy Zaharis, Williams' niece, said the hearing brought on mixed emotions about the "horrible nightmare" the family has experienced.

"It resurfaces a lot of pain that we have, but it's very nice to have closure and have him admit to it," Zaharis said.

Patty Lignell worked as a housekeeper for Williams for 20 years, calling herself "his girl Friday." Lignell was deeply emotional as she left the courtroom Tuesday, torn between grief and joy.

"I was off guard," she said through tears.

Lignell said she never expected Crawford could be capable of taking Williams' life.

"I was there the night before, I took John to the symphony," Lignell said. "I told him not to go home, but he did anyway. That's when it all happened."

According to court documents obtained by the Deseret News, nearly three weeks before Williams died, he sought a restraining order against Crawford claiming he was deteriorating mentally and emotionally, becoming a risk to Williams' property and a danger to those around him. The request was denied.

Williams installed cameras and changed locks and alarms on the home "to keep Craig Crawford out of the house," a search warrant affidavit also says.

Crawford had made "multiple statements" in the past about "how he would be rich when Mr. Williams died" as well as his desire to "set Mr. Williams' home on fire or how he wished the home would burn down," charging documents allege.

However, before Williams and Crawford were married in July 2009 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the couple had entered into a property agreement, Williams' divorce petition claims. The agreement covered property rights and division, earnings and compensation, debts and obligations, and a deal that neither partner would pay alimony in the event of a divorce.

Williams was the president of Gastronomy, which operates the popular Market Street Grill, Market Street Oyster Bar and the New Yorker restaurants. He restored and renovated old buildings, founded the Downtown Alliance and championed the local arts, Salt Lake City's Olympic bid and other community organizations.

Free and confidential help and support for victims and survivors of domestic violence is available 24/7 at 1-800-897-LINK (5465) or visiting udvc.org.