Relatives of an 83-year-old widowed Nazi work-camp survivor told a Chester County Court judge Tuesday that Irene Kempest would want them to forgive the person who took her life during a spate of arsons that plagued Coatesville.
Commending their attitude, Judge Thomas G. Gavin accepted a plea agreement for George Donkewicz, 24, who will spend from 30 to 60 years in prison on charges that included third-degree murder for Kempest's death on Dec. 7, 2008.
"She would forgive, without question," said Cheryl Pluck, adding that she wished her mother-in-law were here to help the family deal with its pain.
Donkewicz, who told investigators he heard voices compelling him to set fires, pleaded no contest due to mental illness in connection with five fires that occurred from June 18, 2007, through Dec. 9, 2008. The agreement was negotiated between Assistant District Attorney Thomas Ost-Prisco and Assistant Public Defender Sheryl J.M. Willson.
Andrew Kempest said his grandmother, who raised him in Coatesville from age 5, often told about life in Poland during World War II. He recalled one story in which she was working with a crane when bombs were being dropped.
"She kept working and fell asleep in the crane," Andrew Kempest said.
The judge said he believed the outcome of the case was "appropriate," given Donkewicz's mental-health history. The judge said it was evident Donkewicz "was not in control of his faculties" when the crimes occurred. The judge also applauded the police and firefighters for their handling of the tragedy.
After the hearing, Ost-Prisco said about 20 of the approximately 70 fires that terrorized the city for more than a year remained unsolved, well above the national conviction rate of less than 17 percent. Willson declined comment.
Donkewicz was first charged with arson on Dec. 9, 2008, after police said they recognized him in a surveillance video that showed him setting a trash fire on Strode Avenue. He later admitted responsibility for the four other fires.
"I forgive him, but I'll never forget him," said Brittany Clifford, a victim of a June 18 fire on Charles Street.
Clifford said the fire, which started in the vacant side of her duplex, forced her family to evacuate and left it homeless for two months.
Jamie Kempest said she was living next door to her grandmother's house when the fatal fire occurred.
"I remember waking up and seeing flames," she said, adding that her daughter, who was 4 at the time, had wanted to stay at her great-grandmother's the night before.
Both women said they knew Donkewicz, who once lived across the street from Clifford. Although they said they knew he had problems, they were shocked to learn of their severity. Psychologist Elliot Atkins testified that Donkewicz suffered from a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Donkewicz is one of six defendants linked to an arson spree that made national headlines. Four have pleaded guilty and two are awaiting trial.