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Aunt pleaded for arsonist’s freedom

By Walter Geiger The man charged with setting fire to his family’s iconic seafood restaurant, the Lighthouse, pleaded guilty in Lamar superior court Thursday. Stephen Neal Brehaut, 39, entered guilty pleas to first degree arson and insurance fraud. He admitted setting the fire and trying to profit from insurance proceeds. Investigator Mark Barry of the Lamar County sheriff’s office confirmed Brehaut was captured setting the restaurant ablaze June 10, 2012 on his own security camera system. ‘The video showed him trying to set the fire four times. The fourth time it went up,’ Barry testified. Judge Tommy Wilson questioned Brehaut as to why he torched the place. ’I can’t state my state of mind at the time. Many things were going on. I had put several thousand dollars into the restaurant but it was still a loss. I just hit a wall. It seemed like this was my only option out,’ Brehaut answered. District attorney Richard Milam told the judge he was seeking five years in prison. ‘The defense wants no prison time,’ Milam added. Defense attorney Eric Hearn reported Brehaut had no prior record whatsoever and was a ‘perfect candidate’ for first offender treatment. The other co-owners of the Lighthouse pleaded with Judge Wilson to spare Brehaut jail. His aunt, Sherry Wise, and sister, Elizabeth Brehaut, said Stephen Brehaut was under the immense pressure of running a failing business and was dealing with the death of his mother. At the time of the fire, Wise owned 50% of the business while the two Brehauts owned 25% each which they inherited from their mother, the late Loretta Brehaut. ’The Lighthouse wasn’t making money. We just kept struggling. It was a constant struggle the last five years. I owe about $100,000 various places. How can (Stephen) make restitution if he is in jail? I know what he did was wrong but it was hard times. I need him here. I am on dialysis five days a week. He’s basically a good person. This is not typical of Steve,’ Wise told the judge. Elizabeth Brehaut said the restaurant’s seafood vendor called to collect on the day of the fire. ’We had been bouncing checks. It would have gone under much sooner without the money Steve put in. He kept it going. This was totally unlike Steve. He worked 60 hours a week. He had put in $25,000 of his money. He went right back to work after our mother’s funeral without a break. This was his way out. Those of us who have lost everything would lose so much more if we lost Stephen,’ she testified. Three former waitresses testified. Two of them, Joan Johnson and Natalie Nicholson, said they had worked there 28 years and made good money which they had been unable to replace. A third, Olivia Flynn, also had 28 years at the restaurant. ‘I was the lucky one. I got a job close by,’ she said. All three women said they understood insurance would take care of them. ’My understanding out of Stephen’s mouth was insurance would take care of us for six months until the Lighthouse was rebuilt,’ Flynn said. Hearn vehemently argued Georgia law does not allow restitution for lost wages. Milam noted setting fire to a public place was dangerous. ‘Almost every fireman in three counties was at the fire,’ he noted. Judge Wilson, whose family also owned a seafood restaurant for years, noted he was familiar with Wise and had known her for a long time. ‘A lot of folks lost in this. You couldn’t have been thinking if you went in front of the video cameras you put up. The only reason you are not going to prison is because Miss Sherry Wise asked for it,’ the judge said. Brehaut was sentenced to 20 years probation, $100,000 restitution to Wise and restaurant creditors, $9,000 restitution to Lamar County for the cost of fighting the blaze and $241 restitution to the City of Milner for the water expense it incurred due to the firefighting effort. He is subject to a search and specimen clause and will be treated as a first offender.

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