Workers and residents testified Thursday that a human-lit fire did more than destroy a Sugar House office building and nearby homes. It destroyed a safe space, altered their lives and destroyed a community where people had worked for decades.
They asked a judge during a sentencing hearing to impose the longest possible sentence for a man who pleaded guilty to starting that fire.
People described a unique office building with multiple small businesses that enabled a tight-knit group of healers to help the broader community. They talked about the trauma caused by the fire that caused about $2 million in damage in June of 2021 and the emotional and financial struggles to pull their lives and careers together after the office building was destroyed.
Alex Kentish Tuita, 38, of West Valley City, was sentenced to a term of five years to life in prison for aggravated arson, a first-degree felony, and a term of one to 15 years for stalking, a second-degree felony. The judge ordered the sentences to run consecutively, meaning he was sentenced to six years to life. He pleaded guilty to both charges on April 22, as part of a plea deal that dismissed two additional counts of arson and one additional count of stalking.
Third District Judge Barry Lawrence said a sentence should be proportional to the crime, and this crime included the failure to recognize human life because there could have been people in the businesses and there were people in the homes where the fire quickly spread.
"Thankfully nobody has died, but they could have, because the facts of this case were just so outrageous," the judge said.
Two women testified that Tuita’s stalking leading up to the fire prompted them to stop taking on new massage clients and forced them to always be looking over their shoulders, along with other emotional impacts. Lawrence granted them both protective orders.
A man whose home was destroyed, including a home office where he ran his business, said the event led to significant challenges for his business, and the loss of a unique architectural home that he spent tons of hours upgrading. He said he is still living from a suitcase. In addition to this man's home, a duplex was also destroyed in the fire.
Deputy district attorney Abby Brinkerhoff said the millions of dollars sought in restitution in the case could only go so far in repairing the damage done to victims. She showed the judge photos of the fire and its aftermath.
"It's a black hole, there's nothing left. As one of the victims put it, 'There's just a scar on the land,'" Brinkerhoff said.
Tuita said shortly after the fire that he poured gas on the building, lit a fire, and then ran to his car without looking back, blaming emotional and mental pain he felt concerning the two women he had been stalking, according to Brinkerhoff.
Defense attorney Sharla Dunroe spoke about Tuita's actions since the fire and said he has displayed good behavior in the jail, including volunteering to help in the kitchen. She said her client had been a victim multiple times and had many untreated concussions prior to this case, but he did not have a prior criminal history.
Tuita apologized to the community and said he is doing his best to correct his behavior. He said he did not mean harm to the victims and hopes they find peace.
"I just hope the best for the community, for the businesses, for the people and the family," he said.