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Man acquitted in Lower Windsor Twp. arson that killed 2 dogs

Liz Evans Scolforo

A Yorkana man who previously pleaded guilty to offenses related to the arson of an occupied Lower Windsor Township home in which two dogs were killed has been acquitted of all charges in the case.

Justin Leiphart

Justin Leiphart pleaded guilty in March, but later withdrew that plea because he didn't believe he was guilty, according to his attorney, David Erhard.

The case has been described as a drunken prank that went horribly awry.

"We had a heart-to-heart talk before his sentencing, and he was telling me he didn't feel he could genuinely apologize because he didn't do anything wrong," Erhard said. "This is not to say he was not sorry for what happened, but that he would be lying to the judge if he said he was sorry for what he did. I advised him he needed to step back (and reconsider)."

Leiphart, 21, decided to withdraw the plea and go to trial on arson and other serious charges.

"It was risky, but we felt the circumstances were somewhat sympathetic to the defendants," Erhard said. "And it didn't seem to be in dispute that the fire itself was an accident."

Still, he said, "You have to be very brave to put your fate in the hands of 12 jurors."

Prank went wrong: Leiphart, Dakota Molina, Andrew Siple and a teenage boy went to the Manor Road home of Gary and Karen Lake about 1:30 a.m. March 3, 2013, where one of them lit a firework near the home to scare people inside as a prank, prosecutors have said.

Erhard described it as a significantly sized mortar-type device that is supposed to be secured to the ground before it's set off.

The juvenile, whose name was not released and who is now an adult, lit the device and quickly moved away from it, according to accounts.

"It probably tipped over when he put it on the ground," Erhard said.

The device fired into the Lakes' mobile home, where the family was sleeping, prosecutors have said.

Residents awoke to flames and screamed at each other to get out, and to get the children out of the house, according to court documents.

One of the family's dogs survived, but two others perished in the fire, police said.

Deputy prosecutor Jeff Rigby previously said it's believed the young men had been drinking and "thought they were going to scare the heck out of the family." Rigby has said it's not believed they intended to burn down the house, but said their conduct was "exceptionally reckless and exceptionally stupid."

Domestic issue: Molina and one of the residents of the home, Nicholas Lake, were involved in a domestic situation with the same woman, court documents state.

Dakota Molina

Molina, 21, of Lower Windsor Township, pleaded guilty in March to felony arson. He was sentenced to nine months in York County Prison and ordered to pay his share of more than $25,000 in restitution, court records state.

Molina's defense attorney, Chris Ferro, has described the incident as an immature prank "that unfortunately led to a catastrophic result" and said Molina "feels horrible" about what happened.

Siple, 24, of the York area, was a cooperating witness for the prosecution and testified at Leiphart's trial. His criminal case remains active, court records state.

The then-juvenile co-defendant testified for the defense, telling jurors that Leiphart, Molina and Siple told him not to set off the device, according to Erhard.

Erhard said there was no evidence presented that Leiphart participated.

"The evidence was that they all told (the juvenile) not to do it," he said.

Some charges tossed: After the prosecution rested, Erhard asked presiding Common Pleas Judge Harry Ness to throw out many of the charges, arguing insufficient evidence had been presented for the jury to consider those offenses.

Ness dismissed charges of arson, conspiracy to commit arson, risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief and two counts of animal cruelty, according to court records.

Jurors on Wednesday took 45 minutes or so to find Leiphart not guilty of the remaining charges, according to Erhard — multiple counts of reckless endangerment and various conspiracy counts.

Leiphart's relief was tempered by the fact that the Lakes suffered tragic consequences, the attorney said.

"I think he's just happy to be able to move on with his life," Erhard said. "This was a horrible situation. Something very bad happened to the Lake family, so it's hard to be happy."

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com.