Madison Twp. man admits to starting fatal fire, faces up to 18 years in prison

James Johnson will be sentenced in March.

A Madison Twp. man has admitted to setting a 2020 trailer fire that killed a man.

James D. Johnson, 57, of Catalina Manufactured Home Community, was arrested a few days after the Sept. 21, 2020, fire at the Germantown Road residence.

Steven C. Strain, 59, was found dead in the mobile home.

A month later, Johnson was indicted by a Butler County grand jury for murder and aggravated arson.

Credit: Butler County Jail

Credit: Butler County Jail

The defense questioned Johnson’s competency to stand trial, and after three separate forensic psychological evaluations, Butler County Common Please Judge Dan Haughey ruled him competent in October.

Johnson’s trial was scheduled to begin Jan. 31, but he pleaded guilty Tuesday to reduced charges of involuntary manslaughter and arson. He faces a maximum of 18 years in prison. Haughey set sentencing for March 8.

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said the plea means Johnson is accepting responsibility for his actions.

“The circumstances of his involvement were such that there is a genuine and legitimate question about his mental status at the time this fire was started by him and his knowledge of the consequences with respect to his friend who was still in the trailer,” Gmoser said. “Based on the evidence we had, I thought it was best to have the acceptance of responsibility.”

The defense had also entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, which may have be perused at trial.

The trailer was engulfed in flames when deputies arrived about 8:06 p.m. The deputies attempted to get inside to the bedroom of a man trapped, but were unable because of the intensity of the fire, according to the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.

At the scene, Johnson told deputies he was smoking a cigar and laid it down on a roll of toilet paper, causing a fire.

Johnson has been jail in lieu of a $100,000 bond since his arrest.

Madison Twp. Fire Chief Kent Hall said last year, firefighters had put out a blaze at the same trailer Aug. 12, 2020. During that fire, three trailer park employees pulled Johnson from inside the rear door and removed him from the trailer. He is the original owner of the trailer, according to fire officials.

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