Louisville, KY — Billi Jo Smallwood was sentenced to 25 years in prison Thursday for setting fire to her Fort Campbell home and killing two of her children. Prosecutors described the arson as a scheme to get out of a rocky marriage and collect on her soldier husband’s life insurance policy.
The 39-year-old tearfully begged for leniency and showed photo albums of her children while claiming she was innocent.
“Those are my children, my babies that grew inside of me,” Smallwood told US District Judge Thomas B. Russell. “I love them so much.”
During an hour of testimonials, friends, family, and jail guards said Smallwood was caring, selfless, and deeply religious. Assistant US Attorney James R. Lesousky Jr., however, described Smallwood’s actions as “premeditated and devious” and said they justified a life sentence.
“She turned her back on those children, and when she did so, she lost two of them,” Lesousky said.
Smallwood was convicted by a federal jury in Paducah, Kentucky, of maliciously setting fire to the two-story housing unit in 2007 while her children were sleeping inside. Prosecutors said she intended to kill her husband and cash in his $400,000 life insurance policy.
Smallwood was convicted of one count of malicious damage and destruction by fire to property owned by the United States.
Her son, 9-year-old Sam Fagan, and daughter, 2-year-old Rebekah Smallwood, died in the fire. Her husband, Wayne Smallwood, and another daughter survived.
Judge Russell cited the “powerful and sincere” remarks made by Smallwood’s defenders while he handed down his sentence. He also ordered Smallwood to pay $209,000 in restitution for damages caused by the fire.
Evidence presented at the trial showed that Smallwood purchased a container of gasoline about 12 hours before setting the fire. Remnants of the container were found by investigators in the first-floor dining room, where gasoline had been poured and set on fire.
Prosecutors also said Smallwood fabricated a claim that she received a threatening phone call meant for her husband the night before the fire. They said she was trying to divert attention from herself as a suspect.
“The telephone call never happened,” Lesousky said. “It was part of her cover up.”
Brenda Napper, a sergeant at Marion County Detention Center said she believed Smallwood was innocent, and that it was the first time she ever felt that way about an inmate.
Mitchell Embry, a volunteer chaplain at the detention center, said Smallwood was “the most faithful, deep-thinking, spiritual person I’ve been around.”
Billi Jo Smallwood’s defense attorney Laura Wyrosdick declined to say whether her client would appeal her sentence.