According to prosecutors, a convicted arsonist, who has twice staged being abducted, used a Molotov cocktail to set his parents’ home on fire last March and tried to frame a detective, who is also a deputy county fire marshal, for the offense.
The charges are the latest development in the curious history of 55-year-old Lionel Scott Ellison, who prosecutors say staged his own abduction in 2008 — the day before he was to be sentenced for setting his ex-girlfriend’s car on fire — and again in 2010, when he was found on the side of a road in Park County, reportedly with his wrists and feet loosely bound with duct tape and a plastic bag over his head.
Ellison appeared Friday in Yellowstone County Justice Court on a charge of arson and two counts of tampering with or fabricating physical evidence.
Judge David A. Carter set Ellison’s bond at $20,000, but the man will be kept in custody even if he posts bail because he is on parole after being convicted for setting his ex-girlfriend’s car on fire in 2007.
Billings Police arrested Ellison Thursday on a $35,000 warrant in connection with a March 13, 2013, fire at his parents' home on the 900 block of Steffanich Drive.
Prosecutors say Ellison started the fire and tried make it appear that a Yellowstone County Sheriff’s detective — Frank Fritz, who is also a deputy county fire marshal and has investigated Ellison in the past — set the early morning blaze and tied shut the exterior doors at the home.
Investigators recovered rope and an open folding knife with the name “Fritz” written on it outside the home.
Ellison reportedly told investigators he had a “hunch” about who lit the fire. Charging documents go on to say that in April 2013 he and his mother told a writer for a local website that they saw Fritz, dressed in black, outside the home on the night of the fire, court records say.
Ellison is scheduled to enter pleas to the charges in District Court on Aug. 8.
Fire at parents’ house
Charging documents say that at about 4:40 a.m. on March 13, 2013, Ellison’s mother, identified as M. E., reported that “somebody rope-tied our doors shut and set the house on fire.”
Billings firefighters and police responded to the reported fire on the 900 block of Steffanich Drive and found that the blaze had been extinguished.
Ellison told an officer that he had seen flames out of a window and had tried to get out of the house but couldn’t, court records say. Ellison said he punched out the glass of a door and cut some rope that had been tied to the outside of the door to keep it shut.
The officer saw that two other exterior doors had been tied shut.
Ellison and his mother told police that they had been having problems with an unknown chubby man, about 5 feet in height, court records say. They said the man had been coming to the house for several weeks, banging on the home's walls and then running away.
More officers, including an ATF agent, fire marshal and police detective arrived to investigate.
They reported finding an O’Doul’s beer bottle embedded in a window at the house.
A police detective spoke with Ellison, who said he used his right fist to punch out the glass in the kitchen door and then used a kitchen knife to cut the rope holding the door shut. The detective noted that Ellison didn’t appear to have any cuts or marks on his hand.
Ellison and his mother again claimed to have seen a man running away from the house.
Ellison said he had a “hunch” about who the man was, but didn’t want to say, court records say.
The detective searched the house and found that it appeared a Molotov cocktail, made from a bottle filled with gasoline and stuffed with a cloth wick, had been thrown against the side of the house.
The detective also inspected the exterior doors of the home that had been tied shut with white cotton rope. Two of the three doors could easily be opened, as one was tied to an unanchored whiskey barrel planter and the other was tied to an old wooden wagon wheel leaning against the house, charging documents say.
Officers also found more white rope, a lighter and a folding knife outside the house.
Written in large letters on the side of the knife was the name “Fritz.”
The police detective knew that detective Fritz had investigated several Ellison cases in the past.
Court records say Fritz was working with other officers on Central Avenue for several hours as the incident on Steffanich Drive unfolded on March 13.
Charging documents reference an April 8, 2013, posting on a “local website” in which Ellison and his mother claim to have seen Fritz, dressed in black, in the front yard of the house on the night of the fire.
The report, written by Donald Cyphers, is archived on Cyphers’ website “Montana News Association.”
Tests done at the state crime lab showed that DNA found on the ropes used to tie the doors the home matched Ellison’s DNA profile, charging documents say.
Ellison’s criminal history
Ellison has a prior arson conviction, and court records say he was investigated for "staging his own abduction" in May 2008 and in July 2010.
In December, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a five-year suspended sentence he received in 2009 for setting his ex-girlfriend’s car on fire in October 2007.
Ellison was sentenced in Park County in April 2013 to five years in prison with two suspended for violating the terms of that suspended sentence with his conviction on eight misdemeanors, including domestic violence, theft and insurance fraud, court records say.
Department of Corrections records indicate he was put on parole at the end of January.
In the most recent "abduction," investigators determined Ellison staged the incident, days before he was set to make a court appearance.
According to investigators, he was found barefoot on the side of Swingley Road outside Livingston with a plastic bag over his head and had used duct tape to loosely bind his legs and wrists.
He later told investigators a “nonsensical story of being abducted by a large African American and a small, mousy Mexican,” charging documents stated.
After his resentencing in April 2013, the tampering charge was dropped.
In May 2008 — the day before Ellison was scheduled to be sentenced for the 2007 arson — he was found bound on the banks of the Yellowstone River. He claimed he had been abducted and thrown off a bridge.
According to charging documents, Ellison was scheduled for another court appearance on March 13, 2013, the day of the fire at his parents’ home.