Lengthy sentence imposed in “tragic” arson, attempted murder

Carter, almost 28, will spend next 28 years in prison

By Heather Michon, correspondent

File photo of Cole Carter.

Just two days short of the first anniversary of the night Cole Carter set a Palmyra home on fire with a family asleep inside, Judge Richard E. Moore sentenced him to serve the better part of the next 30 years in prison.

The sentencing came at the end of an emotional four-hour hearing in Fluvanna County Circuit Court on Friday (May 31).

Carter pleaded guilty to multiple charges of arson, attempted murder, and violations of a protective order at his arraignment in late January.

He admitted to setting fire to the home of William Lowry on Miles Jackson Road in Palmyra at around 3:45 a.m. on June 3, 2018, aware that the Lowrys were asleep inside.

The arson capped a two-month period in which Carter was cited for repeatedly violating a protective order taken out by his former fiancée, Jessica Lowry, who lived with her parents and brother at that address. She was not home at the time. The family awakened in time to escape the fire unharmed, but their home and belongings were destroyed by the blaze.

Carter was arrested later that morning as he tried to flee the area.

At Friday’s sentencing hearing, Becky Lowry, Jessica Lowry’s mother, testified to the impact the fire had on her and her family.

“It affects my whole life,” she said.

Not only did she lose her home and all her possessions, but she also has to contend with psychological effects. Now, “if I hear any noise, I’m extremely anxious,” she said. The smell of smoke and the sound of emergency vehicles can trigger severe anxiety attacks.

Her husband, William Lowry, said the fire devastated the family emotionally: “When you lose everything you got, that you worked so hard for, it’s hard. Everybody’s different now.”

For the defense, a half-dozen family members and friends testified to how out-of-character the crime was for Carter, whom all described as a big-hearted, hard-working, law-abiding young man.

His mother, Sandra Carter, told the judge that her son spiraled into depression following the breakup with Jessica Lowry. He began abusing Adderall, a powerful amphetamine often used for the treatment of attention deficit disorder, she said.

By May 2018, he was suffering from long periods of sleeplessness, anxiety, agitation, tremors and hallucinations. Late that month, Carter’s grandmother unexpectedly fell ill and died, further exacerbating his sense of despair, she said. The arson took place just two days after her funeral.

“I thought I had time to get him help,” she said, “but I failed him as a mother and as a nurse.”

Carter was staying with one of his sisters in the Mechanicsville area at the time of the arson. His sister’s girlfriend, Micki Gregory, testified that she had seen Carter just before the crime, finding him standing at the door “eyes glazed over,” unresponsive to her questions.

Gregory said she had witnessed the frightening decline in the weeks leading up to June 3. By the final days, he was losing his train of thought in the middle of sentences and couldn’t finish even simple tasks. “One second he would be trying to pick himself up, and the next second he felt there was no way forward,” she said.

Gregory said she believed his crime was “an act of desperation, and not of cruelty.”

This sentiment was echoed by Brenda Setelin, mother of one of Carter’s childhood friends. She testified that he had reached out to her during his decline and asked her to help get him into counseling just days before the arson. She found a therapist but was unable to set up the appointment on his behalf.

“Cole’s not a killer,” she said, her voice breaking. “If anything, this was a cry for help.”

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Todd Shockley cross-examined both Setelin and Gregory on whether they understood the details of the crime: that Carter had deliberately poured gasoline under the bedroom windows of the Lowry home in the middle of the night and fled.

Both women said it didn’t change their opinion of Carter.

In his arguments, Shockey said Carter’s lack of previous criminal behavior made his rapid descent into premeditated arson and attempted murder all the more terrifying.

The Commonwealth asked the judge to consider a sentence of 35 to 40 years, more than double the sentencing guidelines maximum. “Incarceration is a surety that the Lowrys can sleep knowing Cole Carter won’t be coming back for a very long time,” Shockley said.

Defense attorney Graven W. Craig said he was “frankly stunned” at the Commonwealth’s position on sentencing. While admitting it was “without question a terrible, terrible, terrible crime,” he argued that Carter had shown remorse, had not subjected the Lowrys to a trial, and “had made himself accountable at every opportunity.”

To give Carter some chance at having a productive life after prison, Craig asked the judge to stay within the sentencing guidelines of seven to 17 years.

Moore deliberated in chambers for more than 30 minutes before giving his verdict. “I have a lot of thoughts about this case,” he said, calling it “tragic all the way around.”

He said that Carter clearly had emotional issues, but “in our society, whether you control your emotions, you have to control your actions.”

Before imposing the sentence, Moore allowed Carter to speak.

“I want to take this opportunity to deeply apologize to the Lowry family,” Carter said, holding back tears. “I thank God nobody got hurt.”

He also apologized to the people of Fluvanna, the Commonwealth, and the investigators. “I can’t fully explain my action,” he said. “I’m so ashamed at myself and embarrassed.” He added that rebuilding himself as a man was his primary focus going forward.

Moore said the guidelines in the case were too low for the gravity of the crime, and there had been a good chance a jury would have imposed a life sentence.

For the arson, he sentenced Carter to life, but suspended all but five years. On the three counts of attempted murder, the sentence was 10 years per count with 10 years to run concurrently, for an active sentence of 20 years. On five counts of violating protective orders and one count of using a false ID during arrest, he received a total of 72 months with 29 months suspended, or about four years.

By Moore’s calculation, Carter, who turns 28 in August, will spend about 28 years in prison.

Carter’s legs seemed to buckle at the final total and deputies helped lower him into his chair. Crying, his sister, Danielle Robinson, asked the judge if she could make a statement, but he did not allow it.

Carter will also be required to make restitution of $132,036.01. Once out of prison, he will face five years of supervised probation and will have to maintain good behavior for the remainder of his life.

He was ordered not to contact anyone in the Lowry family at any time in the future.

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