Flames engulf an upstairs room

Flames engulf an upstairs room during a blaze at the Okerman Apartments on the morning of June 2, 2014, at 23 Yellowstone Ave.

Gazette Staff

The case against a Billings woman accused of setting fire to an apartment complex causing $1 million in damage has been dismissed after a judge suppressed the woman’s confession.

Jesse Elizabeth Root, then 25, was charged with felony arson and criminal endangerment in the June 2, 2014, fire that was started while tenants slept. Root also lived in the building. No injuries were reported in the incident.

Prosecutors say Root, who was arrested and taken to the Billings Clinic for a psychiatric evaluation while the fire was still burning, admitted to starting the blaze.

But that confession came during her medical evaluation, which should have been kept confidential, District Judge Gregory Todd ruled.

Responding police officers also failed to read Root her Miranda rights, said defense attorney Jay Lansing.

Prosecutors argued to drop the case, provided that Root completes certain unspecified requirements. If she violates those terms, the Yellowstone County attorney’s office could resume its case against her.

The fire began at about 5:30 a.m. One of the nine tenants, Svein Newman, awoke to officers pounding on his door.

“They shouted, ‘The building’s on fire, get out, get out, get out,’” Newman said Monday, recounting the incident.

Root was reportedly in no hurry to leave the building despite smoke and flames. Once outside she was unable to answer simple questions and made nonsensical statements to emergency responders.

Newman ended up couch surfing for several weeks before finding a new apartment downtown. While his bike and dishes survived the fire, most of his belongings, including a laptop, camera and camping gear, did not. Newman estimated he lost $8,000 to $10,000 worth of property in the fire.

“The big deal is that nobody was hurt,” he said.

The Okerman apartment building, at 23 Yellowstone Ave., has since been refurbished, and new tenants are living there. 

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.