Despite a tear drop tattooed under his right eye, Jerald McCabe showed little emotion Wednesday inside a federal courtroom in Charleston, where he would be sentenced to prison for making methamphetamine in a Goose Creek apartment complex that caught fire, killing three people.
“Our hearts have never been healed,” said Nancy Edwards, the grandmother of a 4-year-old who died in the blaze. “I hope they get what they deserve.” McCabe, 34, was the first to be sentenced after he and co-defendant Shonni Abernathy pleaded guilty this year to two counts of charges involving making methamphetamine.
McCabe said little during the hearing and remained quiet when the judge sentenced him to 25 years behind bars. The hearing lasted about three hours, but early into it, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel wanted prosecutors to address a concern.
While investigators could determine that McCabe and Abernathy made meth in the Pine Harbour Apartment on several occasions, and that the fatal fire started in the pair’s apartment, no one had been able to definitively answer a question that has lingered since their arrests: Did the pair’s meth-making cause the fatal fire on May 31, 2012?
Gergel wanted an answer before deciding how long McCabe would be placed behind bars, but prosecutors and investigators couldn’t give him one.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips, a State Law Enforcement Division arson investigator and a Drug Enforcement Agency task-force member all told Gergel there was no concrete evidence that showed that McCabe’s and Abernathy’s meth-making caused the fire, or if they even cooked meth the day of the blaze.
Neither McCabe nor Abernathy have admitted to making meth the day of the fire, and much of the evidence was burned, according to Phillips.
“There’s no testimony on that. All we can do is piece together circumstantial evidence,” Phillips said. “It’s a bit of a mess and it’s muddy.”
For Gergel, there wasn’t enough concrete evidence for him to take the deaths into consideration when deciding McCabe’s sentence. Either way, it wouldn’t make a difference in the amount of time McCabe would face behind bars, according to prosecutors.
McCabe will likely spend the next 33 years behind bars, 25 years for his federal sentence, which he won’t begin serving until after finishing his 10-year state sentence for violating probation for a prior drug conviction, for which he already has served about two years.
Abernathy, 41, who also pleaded guilty to the drug charges in April, has not been sentenced yet.
Inside the apartment that caught fire, two people were found dead: Abernathy’s daughter, Morgan, 19, and her 4-year-old cousin, Sammy Garbe. Joseph Raeth, a 69-year-old military veteran, died in a neighboring unit.
Garbe’s family sat in the front row of the courtroom during McCabe’s sentencing hearing. Even though the deaths were not pinned to McCabe’s meth-making, many of the family members said they believe the pair is to blame and still find comfort in the amount of time McCabe will serve on the drug charges.
“I’ll take what I can get,” said Richard Morrow, Garbe’s father.
Morrow said he understands the constraints investigators faced considering the damage to the apartment and building.
“The investigators have done as much as they can,” said Teresa Shenot, one of Garbe’s grandmothers.
Family members also felt relief when an investigator put one theory to rest during the hearing. A witness had claimed they’d seen a child in the apartment lighting a shirt on fire, which the investigator testified was not consistent with their observations.
Morrow said they’re one stop closer to closure and that this bit of justice somehow eases the heart-wrenching and soul-crushing agony their family has faced.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.