Smith County jury finds 91-year-old man guilty of arson
TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - A Smith County jury has found a 91-year-old man accused of arson guilty of the crime.
Kermit Gabel was accused of setting a structure fire at 205 S. Beckham Ave. in Tyler on Nov. 6, 2020. He was arrested nearly a week later on Nov. 11 on a charge of 1st Degree Felony Arson. He was 89 years old at the time of his arrest. Gabel pleaded not guilty to the arson charge in court Tuesday.
The jury came down with the verdict after over two hours of deliberation. The jury will be back Wednesday morning to hear testimony for his punishment.
Opening statements started with prosecutors painting a picture of the night the crime happened, asking the jury to find Gabel guilty of arson.
In her opening statement, a prosecutor said officials spoke with a woman who lived near the scene of the fire. The resident told them she had previously heard glass breaking and saw an elderly man coming down the steps of the home.
The resident called police and notified them of the suspicious activity.
The woman also told investigators she saw the man driving a truck at a slow rate of speed each day that week in front of the house. The prosecutor said Gabel could be seen sitting in the truck across the street following the interview with the resident. Surveillance video allegedly showed Gabel waking away from the scene after the fire happened.
No opening statement was delivered by the defense attorney representing Gabel.
Amanda Cook, Public Safety Administrator for the City of Tyler, was the first person called to testify on Tuesday. A recording was then played by the prosecution of a 911 call placed on the night of the fire.
Gabel is using headphones to assist him in hearing the proceedings. He’s also using a pen and notepad to communicate with his attorney during trial.
A senior captain with the Tyler Fire Department was the second person called to testify. A photo was also shown by the prosecution showing the glow of the house fire.
The woman who reported the suspicious activity to police was then called to testify. On the witness stand, the woman said she saw a man walking down the steps of the house across the street. The house would catch fire later that week.
The woman identified Gabel as the man she saw that night. She also said she saw the man driving slowly by the house every day that week.
Prosecutors showed cell phone video captured by the woman on the night she saw the man walking out of the house. Gabel could be heard in the court saying the video was not enough to identify him. His attorney could be heard telling Gabel “shhhhh.”
Surveillance video from the woman’s home was also shown from the night of the fire. A man could be seen walking away from the scene in one of the clips. Two other clips, one from a different angle, also showed the white truck previously seen by the woman driving down the road.
During questioning, Gabel’s defense attorney argued the surveillance video was captured in black and white—making it difficult to identify the color of passing vehicles.
After a brief break, the state called a deputy fire marshal to the witness stand. He stated the house was vacant at the time and no injuries were reported.
The deputy fire marshal testified about the investigation into the fire and echoed statements made by the woman who testified earlier in the day, whom he interviewed during the investigation.
While outside of the home, the woman notified the deputy fire marshal that the elderly man and truck she had previously seen was driving down the road yet again. The deputy fire marshal then ran across the street and got in his vehicle to catch up with the man. The man stopped on his own and was then approached by the deputy fire marshal.
The man identified himself as Kaye Gabel, later determined to be Kermit Francis Gabel. Gabel denied ever being on the property where the fire happened, but did state he saw the fire and commented on how high the flames were.
The deputy fire marshal testified Gabel was holding a clipboard with what appeared to be a map. Gabel told him he was trying to figure out who owned a nearby lot by way of the Smith County Appraisal District.
The woman who lived across the street later contacted the deputy fire marshal with cell phone and surveillance video.
A photo of Gabel’s white Chevrolet Silverado was then shown to the jury. The cell phone video captured by the resident was also played for the jury, in which the deputy fire marshal said the video appears to show an elderly gentleman walking down the steps.
Surveillance video from the woman’s home was also played for the jury, in which a white truck can be seen driving down the street. The deputy fire marshal stated this matched the vehicle Gabel drove.
Gabel’s comments to his defense attorney continued to be heard in open court. The jury was excused from the courtroom following one of Gabel’s comments. Judge Austin Reeve Jackson asked Gabel to please communicate with his lawyer by way of writing, considering Gabel is hard of hearing.
Jackson said if the behavior continued, he would have no other option than to remove Gabel from the courtroom. Gabel argued he believes he isn’t speaking loudly.
After lunch, the deputy fire marshal testified a fire like this doesn’t happen without an accelerant.
The deputy fire marshal was questioned about the man seen in both a cell phone video clip from the night of suspicious activity, and surveillance video from the night the fire happened. He believed the man in both videos was Gable and then confirmed he made the arrest of Gable on a warrant.
Images from the deputy fire marshal’s body camera were then shown to the jury. They showed Gable in handcuffs with his white truck in the background.
Another image from the body camera showed a gas can in the back of Gabel’s truck. The deputy fire marshal then stated he remembered seeing several gas cans in the back of his truck on the day he first spoke with Gabel. Two boxes of matches were eventually recovered from inside Gabel’s truck.
Gabel’s defense attorney then asked the deputy fire marshal whether or not a sample was ever obtained of any accelerant. The deputy fire marshal stated a sample was not collected.
The defense attorney also took aim at the woman who lived across the street’s account of events by questioning whether or not she was wearing glasses. He also highlighted the woman’s call made to 911 on the night of suspicious activity at the home. In the recording, the woman said she believed he was white. The defense attorney stated she couldn’t confirm his race.
Prosecutors had no further questions for the deputy fire marshal. The state rests its case.
Following a brief afternoon break, Gabel’s defense attorney introduced a motion alleging insufficient evidence had been offered.
The defense attorney stated prosecutors previously said they would have proof of an accelerant being used in the fire. He claimed this was not offered as promised.
The defense attorney argued the state has not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Gabel set the fire. The motion was overruled by Judge Austin Reeve Jackson.
Gabel’s attorney said his client will not testify, meaning he will rest his case when the jury returns.
The jury started deliberating around 3:15 p.m.
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