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Jury convicts ex-boyfriend of arson
Strobel sentenced to 10 years in prison
strobel steve
A Winder man will serve 10 years in prison for helping his former girlfriend torch her northeastern Forsyth home as part of an alleged insurance scam.

Late Thursday, a jury convicted Steven Edward Strobel, 47, of one count of first-degree arson in connection with the Jan. 18, 2009, fire that destroyed the Lanier Drive home of Pamela Morrow Graf.

Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley denied the defense’s request for first offender status and handed down a 20-year sentence, half of which will be served on probation.

He must also pay a $2,000 fine. Restitution will be determined at a later date.

Graf has pleaded not guilty to the arson charge, as well as one count each of possession of cocaine and possession of marijuana less than an ounce. Her case has not gone to trial.

After the blaze, Graf told authorities she and Strobel left Jan. 16, 2009, for the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., and were not at the house when it burned down.

Graf, 48, also maintained that she was targeted because of her support of President Barack Obama and that the spray-painting of a racial slur and phrase on a fence along her property was a hate crime.

Testimony in Strobel's case began Tuesday, after a jury of six women and eight men was impaneled.

After the prosecution rested its case Thursday morning, Bagley denied a motion from Strobel's attorney, Brian Daly of Savannah, to dismiss the case.

Strobel was the lone witness in his defense, testifying that he had lied to investigators, but also told the truth.

Forsyth County Chief Assistant District Attorney Sandy Partridge and Assistant District Attorney James Dunn handled the prosecution.

During lengthy and often contentious testimony, Strobel said the initial plan was to go to Washington, D.C., but he and Graf never made it there.

He also testified that Graf told Steve Anderson, the fire department’s lead investigator in the case, they did make it there.

Strobel said the couple had argued about why he should corroborate her story.

Wednesday, witnesses called by the prosecution testified that many of Graf’s personal belongings -- including family photos and home movies, furniture, tax documents and clothing -- were found after the blaze in two storage units Strobel had paid for in Barrow County.

The witnesses, which included fire investigators and two of Graf’s three children, also said some items found at Strobel’s house belonged to Graf.

Strobel said Thursday he rented the first storage unit for himself because the house into which he was moving wasn’t big enough for all of his possessions.

At the time of his final interview with authorities, Strobel said, he still didn’t believe Graf burned down her house because one of her cats was inside.

Furthermore, he said, she was expecting to get custody of her middle child and “when they said the fire happened we were in my house in Winder.”

Partridge challenged statements Strobel made on the stand and during the video-recorded interviews with authorities in winter 2009, parts of which had been shown earlier in the trial.

At one point she drew a chart, labeled it “lies” and attempted to go through Strobel's version of events point by point.

In one of the recorded interviews, Strobel implicated Graf in the blaze. Thursday, he said he did so only because he was “extremely mad” at her.

“I wanted to implicate her because I lost custody of my daughter, I lost my job,” he said. “I realize I lied, and I should be penalized for that, but I wanted her to pay dearly.”

But Partridge took issue with his testimony, noting that Strobel didn’t lose custody until Feb. 9, 2009, and the last interview was conducted Feb. 4, 2009. He also didn’t lose his job until later.

Strobel said he is on disability and listed various illnesses. Yet, he was able to move Graf’s furniture to the storage units and his house.

He acknowledged having said he took Graf to her house to help her burn it down, but said that’s not what they actually did.

He said he and Graf left her house at 10 p.m. on Jan. 18, 2009. They had gone there to find her cat before departing for Washington.

He also said they planned to take the cat, which they never found, back to his house in Winder because it would have been better off living there than in Graf’s garage, though he didn’t know why.

At one point in his testimony, he said he and Graf did not start the fire and that phone records would show they were nowhere near the house at the time.

He couldn't say, however, what time the blaze began.

Prior to Strobel's testimony Thursday, the jury heard from Rodney Wilson, a claim representative for State Farm Insurance, and Timothy Eckel, a financial consultant, about Graf’s home insurance policy and her economic situation.

On Wednesday, Anderson testified that he was called out to Graf’s house about 5:15 a.m. Jan. 18, 2009. Firefighters were still working to extinguish the flames when he arrived.

Anderson said he interviewed Strobel three times after the fire. At first, he said, Strobel stuck to the story that the couple went to Washington, D.C.

Eventually, Anderson said, Strobel told him it was Graf’s idea to tell people they went to the nation's capitol.

“It was in this interview he told us he got the storage (units) and started moving stuff in,” said Anderson, adding that Strobel maintained the first unit had been rented for Graf in September 2008.

He said Strobel rented the second unit on Jan. 20, 2009, the day before the first interview was conducted.

Strobel also claimed that the items they would find in the units were those that Graf had collected for yard sales. He never opened the boxes she asked him to move.

Anderson said Strobel admitted the couple never made it to Washington, traveling only as far as Charlotte, N.C.

Cell phone records presented in court confirmed that Strobel was in the Winder area about 2:30 a.m. Jan. 18, 2009, and in Charlotte about 10:15 a.m. the same day.

The records did not show calls being made from Washington, D.C.

Also Wednesday, Partridge showed the jury excerpts of Strobel's recorded interviews with authorities.

In the final session, on Feb. 4, 2009, Strobel said he wanted to “tell the truth.”

“She has manipulated me this whole time,” Strobel is seen saying in the video. “I did drive her to help her burn her house down.”

He maintained that he did not participate in setting the fire. He dropped her off, then drove around the neighborhood for about 20 minutes before picking her up.

Strobel went on to say that Graf burned her house down because she wanted to move to Tybee Island on the Georgia coast. There was “nothing” in it for him.

“I can’t move to Tybee,” Strobel said.

In the interview, he said Graf's house was full of items -- including couches, beds, TVs and three refrigerators -- when he was last in it on Jan. 16.

He also said they got to Charlotte about 2 a.m. Jan. 18, 2009.

“We went to a bar,” Strobel said. “We partied. We did a lot of different stuff.”

Anderson testified that debris landed in the basement as the house burned. He said he detected a strong smell of gasoline, which can be an indicator of a set fire, and determined the fluid came from a rug.

He said investigators also determined the blaze started in the master bedroom.

“Based on what we saw on the scene, it was a set fire,” Anderson said.

Graf’s oldest son, 18, and daughter, 12, testified that they and their 15-year-old brother, had dinner with their mother a couple of days after the fire.

They both said she wanted to talk to them about what happened. After the meal, they said, their mother handed them garbage bags full of sentimental items and other possessions that seemed “random” from the trunk of her vehicle.

Both children said they knew Strobel and that the defendant had dated Graf, but they broke up and remained friends.

Graf’s ex-husband, Michael, who had custody of the children, confirmed they came home with the items, some of which were presents from the previous Christmas.