Three Turlock women have been convicted of arson for starting a fire at a vacant cheese plant that turned into a raging inferno that left the 59,000 square foot facility nothing more than a pile of charred rubble.
Erika Lee Clardy, 26, Wanda Kay White, 46, and Lanette Renee Sullivan, 48, entered no contest pleas on May 19 and were subsequently found guilty of arson of an inhabited structure. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen sentenced Sullivan and White each to five years in state prison, while Clardy was sentenced to three years, according to the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. The three women also will have to register as arson offenders for the rest of their lives.
The charges against the three women stemmed from a fire at the former Lactalis plant on Main Street on Feb. 19, 2013, and initially included an allegation of attempted murder.
The district attorney’s office filed the attempted murder charges against the three women because they suspected the fire was set as a concerted effort to end the life of Terry Sump, the former flame of Sullivan. Sump had been living in the vacant factory and had taken to the rafters to hide after arguing with the women.
Sump escaped a fiery death by jumping from the rafters as the flames devoured the building.
In previous testimony at the preliminary hearing, Sump said he and Sullivan had been fighting about a $20 debt and that he had forcibly removed her from the plant. He said Sullivan came back with White — her sister — and Clardy, White’s daughter. Sump said he climbed up to the rafters to avoid the three women and that he was up there when Clardy stated they should start a fire to “smoke him out.”
Turlock Police Detective Frank Navarro testified that White told him she started the fire by lighting some newspapers and debris and putting them under some boards up against the wall, directly below where Sump was hiding in the rafters. The women also later admitted to starting another fire in the plant to drive Sump out, according to the court documents.
The attempted murder charges against the women were dropped at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing when Steffen ruled there was no evidence the women were trying to kill Sump.
In his ruling, Steffen cited Sump’s own assertion that he didn’t think the women were trying to kill him, but rather were out to scare him.
“I don’t see any evidence they had intent to kill,” Steffen said in his ruling.
The damage from the fire was estimated at $5 million.
The building has been vacant since 2007 when Lactalis USA shuttered their local operations. In the ensuing years it has been a regular target for thieves seeking copper wiring and recyclables. It also was routinely used by transients seeking shelter. After the fire the remaining rubble was cleared away and the lot remains empty.