Villa Park man guilty of murder in 2012 Lombard arson case
A Villa Park man faces life in prison after being found guilty of starting a July 2012 fire that killed a 24-year-old woman and severely burned a 25-year-old man.
A 12-member DuPage County jury deliberated less than two hours Tuesday before convicting Todd Mandoline of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated arson. Mandoline started the fire July 22, 2012, 1028 S. Ahrens Ave. in Lombard, that killed Paula Morgan and injured her friend Jason Cassidy.
Mandoline started the fire after a party celebrating Morgan's upcoming 25th birthday. Mandoline's conviction Tuesday came on his 26th birthday.
Assistant State's Attorney Dave Bayer said Mandoline stuffed an ignited piece of a paper concrete bag into the gas tank of Morgan's 2003 Acura just before 4 a.m.
The fire spread quickly from the car, up the driveway, to the garage and eventually through the two-story home. Morgan was found unresponsive in the smoke-filled landing of the home's staircase. Cassidy, found on the floor of an upstairs bedroom, was able to be resuscitated.
"(Mandoline) intentionally set that car on fire and he lives with the consequences," Bayer told jurors during Tuesday's closing arguments. "He started the fire. What happens happens and he's the guy responsible."
Morgan's mother, Gina Morgan, testified that Mandoline and Morgan were in an "on again, off again" relationship early in the week before the fire.
That week, prosecutors said, Mandoline spent several days with Morgan and her 6-year-old son, Nicholas, taking in a Cubs game and enjoying other family activities. The same week, Bayer said, Mandoline gave Morgan a necklace that would be the source of an argument that led to Mandoline's ouster from Morgan's birthday party.
Bayer said Morgan unexpectedly canceled plans with Mandoline on July 20, causing him to visit her the next day seeking an explanation. The two talked, Bayer said, but Mandoline felt she was being distant.
Later that night at the party, several witnesses said, Mandoline was seen tussling with Morgan, trying to pull off the necklace he gave her days earlier.
After Mandoline was pulled off Morgan by another partygoer and threatened others, another partygoer agreed to drive Mandoline home about 1:30 a.m. because he was ruining the mood of the party.
"(Mandoline) wasn't exactly the friendliest guy (at the party)," Assistant State's Attorney Jae Kwon said Tuesday. "And he was less than pleased with how he was being treated."
Prosecutors said Mandoline, fueled by anger and jealousy after seeing Morgan hanging out with the father of her child, vowed to another man, via text, that he was coming back to the party. When he came back, Bayer said, Mandoline stalked the house from neighboring yards, waiting for Morgan's bedroom light to turn off before igniting the car in the driveway.
"He sees her light go off and thinks, 'Great. She's sleeping with someone else,'" Bayer said. "And that gives him the right to start a fire?"
Morgan's 6-year-old son, whom Mandoline had put to bed earlier in the night, escaped the fire unharmed and alerted a remaining few partygoers in the back yard. Morgan's mother, who also lived in the house, wasn't home at the time.
"Paula died a horrific death because of the outrageous behavior of Todd Mandoline. Her death also left a young boy without his mother to love, care for and protect him," DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said in a written statement. "In addition, the fire set by (Mandoline) not only left Jason Cassidy fighting for his life as a result of the injuries he sustained in the blaze, but also left him with physical and emotional scars he will carry with him for the rest of his life."
Mandoline's attorney, Ernest DiBenedetto, maintained Tuesday that his client admitted to setting the blaze only after hours of intense questioning and with interrogators "feeding him the information."
DiBenedetto said police did not tell Mandoline that Morgan was killed in the fire and instead told him that if he confessed to setting the car fire, it would only be an insurance claim and Mandoline could "be on his way."
DiBenedetto said there was no "proper investigation" and said "leads were not followed."
"No one can tell you that Todd Mandoline started the fire to Paula Morgan's car," DiBenedetto told jurors. "No one ever saw who started that car on fire."
Mandoline is next due in court at 9 a.m. on Feb. 20 for return of the pre-sentence report and setting of a sentencing date.