Man Burns Down Empty House to Return to Prison

46-year-old convict says he couldn't adjust to being free

Sunday, Sep 25, 2011  |  Updated 8:11 PM CDT
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Man Burns Down House to Return to Prison

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Randall Lee Church pleaded guilty to arson in a July house fire that came just 96 days after his release from prison for a 1983 killing.

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Randall Lee Church was a free man after serving 26 years in prison in a man's stabbing death, but the new world he faced on the outside was just too overwhelming.

So, authorities say, he set a vacant house on fire in San Antonio and confessed to the crime to go back to lockup.

"Everything had gone fast forward without me," Church, 46, told the San Antonio Express-News in a recent interview at Bexar County Jail.

He has pleaded guilty to arson in the July blaze, which came just 96 days after his release for the 1983 killing. The slaying stemmed from a drunken dispute over money.

Church said he felt out of place after getting out of prison. After all, he had entered at a time when cutting-edge technology meant a cordless phone.

"I didn't know how to use computers or cellphones or the Internet," Church told the newspaper. "The weirdest thing was walking into a store, like Walmart, and have parents hide their children from me, like I was supposed to jump at them."

On July 10, Church poured gasoline through a window of the empty house and threw in flaming rags and paper towels. Police said he later told them he did it because he wanted to go back to work as a janitor at the McConnell Unit prison in Beeville, a job in which he got all the ice and soda pop he wanted during the summers.

A few days later, Church ate a hamburger meal at a restaurant with only 31 cents in his pocket and asked the waitress to call police, to whom he eventually confessed about the arson.

"I don't mean to diminish what this man did," said Ann L. Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York. "But when you think about what people come out to, how much the world has changed, what a disadvantage they are at and what little support they generally have, it is kind of a miracle it goes as well as it does for as many people as it does."

The slaying that led to Church going to prison for murder at age 18 happened while he was staying with James Alfred Michael. The two had met months earlier while in a Baytown jail for public intoxication.

The killing stemmed from a drunken fight over a $97 debt Church owed the 56-year-old Michael. Church told the Express-News that after the fight broke up, he was afraid Michael was going to stab him with a knife that he carried on his belt. He said he grabbed a carving knife from the kitchen and stabbed Michael in the chest when he returned.

Re-entry programs aimed at reducing the number of newly released inmates returning to prison were among a series of state prison reforms Texas implemented in 2007. According to the Texas Legislative Budget Board, 24.3 percent of the inmates Texas released that year returned to prison within three years.

Budget cuts would impede efforts to give inmates "the tools to live responsibly," said Ana Yanez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

"While people are in prison, they need to be given vocational programs and counseling and cognitive thinking programming so that when they get out, they can support their families," she told the Express-News.

According to the prison website, Church received five years for arson and will be eligible for parole again in October of 2012.

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