Friends said Kimberly Wooten was the kind of person who would watch the church nursery on a moment's notice and beam with pride as she described her sons' accomplishments.
But they never saw the suburban mother's demons – severe mental problems that a psychiatrist said led her to set a series of fires that destroyed four homes and terrorized neighbors. She was ordered Monday to spend 13 years in prison for the blazes.
Wooten, likely wearing a wig, drove around her neighborhood, setting small fires in pine straw, grass or other vegetation, usually late in the morning or afternoon, prosecutor Robert Elam said. The last was set as she walked her dog.
All but one were put out quickly, causing minimal damage. But on March 22, 2006, Wooten set a fire that quickly spread, burning down four houses. No one was injured.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Wooten, 42, pleaded guilty but mentally ill to seven counts of second-degree arson and several other charges. Her plea meant she knew right from wrong but couldn't conform her behavior to the law.
She is eligible for parole once she serves just over 11 years, meaning she could be released in 2017 with time served.
Wooten gave no explanation for the fires but apologized in a statement read by her lawyer.
Psychiatrist Donna Schwartz-Watts said Wooten suffered from four distinct mental illnesses – pyromania, bulimia, crippling depression and anxiety.
“She tried to be a good wife and mother,” attorney Melissa Kimbrough said. “She was pretty darn successful if you consider everything she had going against her.”
Authorities said Wooten also was accused of setting fires in North Charleston more than a decade ago, but went into a diversion program so the charges would be erased from her record.
Schwartz-Watts said the trigger for starting the fires appeared to be loss. The military wife had a miscarriage shortly before the North Charleston fires started and was dealing with her son getting ready to head off for college when she started setting fires in 2006. Friends said she was also crushed when her mother ordered her out of her life about a decade ago.
“She's not a mean person or a vicious person. She would never want to intentionally hurt someone,” said Wooten's husband of 22 years, Todd, who asked the judge for mercy. “She just needs some help.”
Wooten will get mental health treatment in prison, and the judge ordered an intense probation that will ensure she takes her medicine and continues to get therapy.
Several homeowners asked the judge to give Wooten the 15-year maximum under a plea deal.
Brennan Davis couldn't hold back tears and said she couldn't explain the number of ways her family has suffered losing their home.
“It's still scary to leave in the morning and not know if my house is going to be there when I get back,” she said.