Four charged with aggravated arson in death of their friend
A college prank early Sunday was supposed to end with a Bradley University soccer player running outside in his shorts after being startled by a Roman candle’s starburst exploding against a bedroom wall.
They had pulled the same stunt two nights earlier, when fireworks of some sort were fired around. This time, however, things went wrong. The intended victim, Sheridan "Danny" Dahlquist, 19, died. Rather than congratulating themselves for a good joke, his four friends were charged Monday for starting the fire that caused his death.
Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons charged the men — David Crady, 19, Nicholas Mentgen, 21, Ryan Johnson, 22, and Daniel Cox, 20 — with two counts of aggravated arson and one count of possession an explosive or incendiary device. Each charge carries a prison term of up to 30 years. Probation is not an option for the arson counts.
"I don’t want to make five tragedies out of one tragedy but I also think it is important that we have consequences for our actions," Lyons said.
Peoria County Public Defender Thomas Penn Jr. argued for a lesser bond of $200,000, saying all had ties to the community and weren’t flight risks. Dahlquist’s death was the result of a prank gone awry, he said. The judge, however, denied that and opted for $500,000 bond for each.
A fifth man, Travis English, 19, was a suspect in the case but was released when it was determined he was sleeping at the time of the prank and didn’t take part.
During the hearing, prosecutor Larry Evans said Crady, Mentgen and Johnson — all roommates and all members of the BU soccer team with Dahlquist — had been drinking with Cox, who is not a Bradley student but hung out at the 2008 W. Laura Ave. house frequently. At some point, the prosecutor said they gathered the Roman candles and put one in the 1-inch gap between the floor and door of Dahlquist’s room.
It was a dud, and they returned, Evans said, placing two more underneath the door. They lit them and ran out of the house, expecting Dahlquist to come running.
"When Dahlquist did not come running from the house, one of the men noticed a glow coming from the closed upstairs window," Evans said.
They tried to enter the room but the heat drove them back. Mentgen was hoisted onto the roof to open the window but it was too hot.
Dahlquist was found near the window, a sign he tried to get out before being overcome by smoke and fumes, Lyons said later.
It appeared Dahlquist had shoved a towel in the crack in the door. Lyons believed he had expected some form of "retaliation" from the pervious prank. However, Lyons said he didn’t know if Dahlquist was involved earlier. Rather, he equated it to an attempt to head off trouble. Details of the earlier prank were not available.
Crady and Mentgen were arrested at the house with English. Cox was arrested later when a detective went back to gather some information. Johnson, however, fled the house shortly after the fire started, Lyons said, and didn’t turn himself in until after his attorney contacted Lyons’ office.
At first, they gave conflicting stories, prompting Lyons to say "they did not tell the truth, when asked questioned, and I mean by a lot." The county’s top prosecutor said they tried to minimize their roles and even place blame on others. Some of them, he didn’t say whom, did eventually admit what police believe happened.
Lyons said the blaze Sunday morning met the legal criteria for first-degree murder, noting the four men knowingly caused the acts which led to Dahlquist’s death, but he opted for the lesser charges, saying he didn’t believe the four meant "catastrophic harm" to their friend and roommate.
He compared it to an incident last month where a 15-year-old boy threw a block off an interstate bridge, killing a passing motorist.
"There, he intended catastrophic events to happen. He intended to strike a car and something awful would happen.," Lyons said. "In this case, they did not intend catastrophic results. Because it had occurred two nights before, that encourages or enforced the notion that this was a wild prank."
In 2005, a 15-year-old Chicago boy was sentenced to five years probation for a similar incident. In that case, the boy shoved fireworks through the mail slot of an elderly Calumet City woman in 2004. A fire broke out, and the woman died.
That boy was also charged with aggravated arson and possession of explosives as well as involuntary manslaughter, but the case remained in the juvenile court system, where the emphasis is on rehabilitation, not punishment. Sending the boy to prison would not serve that purpose, the judge in the case said.
The four men in the Peoria case are scheduled to appear in court Sept. 13 for a preliminary hearing though it is likely a grand jury will hear the case sooner. If indicted, then a new court date will be set.
Andy Kravetz can be reached at (309) 686-3283 or email@example.com.