While no one was hurt in the fire that destroyed the original Hardee’s in Devils Lake, it has been estimated that about $1 million worth of damage was done.
The trial of Michael Ott, accused of felony arson and robbery in connection with a fire that burned down a local Hardee’s restaurant in October 2015, begins Monday.
Ott has been incarcerated since his arrest days after the restaurant was destroyed nearly a year and a half ago. In that time, he has made a handful of court appearances, including hearings to suppress evidence and bar media from recording trial proceedings.
Those hearings have ranged from nondescript to somewhat odd, as Ott has often appeared either amused by or uninterested in the court’s business. A constant presence at the various hearings has been Ott’s father, who has steadfastly maintained his son’s innocence.
However, Ott’s father has come up in testimony, as Ott was allegedly able to pay back rent his father owed shortly after the Hardee’s, at which Ott was employed, was robbed and set ablaze.
The state has presented other evidence implicating Ott in the crime. Detective Sue Schwab of the Devils Lake Police Department testified last August that a propane torch, deposit bags from Hardee’s and rolls of coins were found in his apartment. She also testified that Ott said “it looks like I did it” as his apartment was being searched.
Ott’s attorney, Ulysses Jones, attempted unsuccessfully to suppress that evidence. An effort to bar media from the trial was also denied.
Jones has not offered much by way of defense during the hearings since Ott’s arrest. The defense seems to be that another employee working at about the time the robbery and arson was committed may be the culprit, or perhaps an accomplice, but no witnesses were called to rebut Schwab’s testimony.
An attempt to contact Jones for comment Friday was unsuccessful.
Schwab said during her August testimony that the department believes Ott acted alone when they say he robbed and then burned the restaurant down to cover up the crime.
Trials are rare here and around the country, as the overwhelming number of cases are resolved by plea bargain. A 2013 New York Times report revealed that 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases are resolved in plea deals. The question is: Why is the Michael Ott case going to trial in the face of what seems to be overwhelming evidence against him?
Whether or not the defense has compelling reason to go to trial will be revealed throughout the week, barring a late plea deal. Jury selection is expected to take place Monday.
In the 17 months that Ott has been incarcerated, a new Hardee’s has been built and celebrated its grand opening last year.
While no one was hurt in the fire that destroyed the original Hardee’s, it has been estimated that about $1 million worth of damage was done.
Ott faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted.