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Man Pleads Guilty: Set Townhouse Fire

Whether it was a failed suicide attempt, or the act of an angry ex-boyfriend seeking revenge on a former lover, remains to be seen. But whatever his motivation, Louis Alberto Garay pleaded guilty in court, Tuesday, to setting fire to a Chantilly townhouse in April.

Firefighters from Chantilly's fire station 15 responded Sunday, April 20, around 8:30 a.m., to Garay's home at 13858 Beaujolais Court in the Brookside community. Smoke was showing from the upper level of the townhouse. Flames were discovered in one of the bedrooms, and firefighters extinguished them, confining the blaze to that room.

NO ONE WAS HOME at the time, but the fire caused an estimated $75,000 damage. Fire investigators subsequently charged Garay, 31, with two felony counts — burning a dwelling and intentionally setting a fire capable of spreading.

But first they had to find him. After setting the blaze, he hightailed it west to Shenandoah County, but soon ran afoul of the law there, too. He was arrested, the same day, and taken to the county jail in Woodstock, Va.

According to Sgt. Earl Smith of the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office, Garay was held without bond after being charged with a felony and two misdemeanors. But he was known there under a different moniker.

"He was arrested under the name 'Jose Flores,'" said Smith. "A Virginia State trooper picked him up, and he was charged with drunk in public, possession of stolen property and driving on a suspended license."

Garay was eventually returned to Fairfax County, and Tuesday in Circuit Court, he pleaded guilty to one count of "feloniously and maliciously" setting fire to an unoccupied dwelling. His other charge was dropped at his preliminary hearing, July 8.

BEFORE ACCEPTING his plea, Judge Jonathan Thacher made sure that Garay — who said he'd only attended school through the third grade in his native El Salvador — fully understood what he was doing. "Are you entering this plea of guilty, freely and voluntarily, and because you are, in fact, guilty as charged?" asked Thacher. "Yes," replied Garay through a Spanish-language interpreter.

"Do you understand that the maximum amount of punishment you could receive is 10 years in prison?" asked the judge. Again, Garay said yes. Then Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Katie Swart recited the facts of the case. She said a woman owned the townhouse, and Garay was her "live-in boyfriend."

"Two weeks earlier, they'd ended their relationship and he'd moved out," said Swart. "A few days before the fire, she had a date with a new suitor, and this apparently enraged him. While she was at work at [her place of business] in Greenbriar, she was told that her house was on fire. The defendant was immediately a suspect."

The prosecutor then told how Garay was picked up by the authorities in Shenandoah and taken to jail. Said Swart: "When detectives questioned him, they noticed that he had burn marks on him, and he fully confessed to [them]."

Thacher then accepted Garay's plea and set his sentencing for Nov. 14. Defense attorney Kimberly Phillips then asked to have a mental-health evaluation of her client done before then, and the judge agreed. "He was under extreme stress at the time [of the incident]," she said. "And the reason he did this was an attempt to commit suicide."