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Wand pleads guilty, convicted
Jeremy Wand, left, represented by public defender Frank Medina, pleaded guilty Wednesday and was convicted in the deaths of his three nephews. (Times photo: Katjusa Cisar)
DARLINGTON - Jeremy Wand pleaded guilty Wednesday and was convicted in the deaths of his three nephews, instead of going to trial in July as planned.

The 18-year-old Wand, who would've graduated earlier this month from Argyle High School, said he decided to plead guilty "so I can get less time and also in remembrance of my nephews and to get a second chance so I can have a family one day."

He entered a plea deal similar to the one his brother and codefendant Armin Wand III, 33, pleaded to in February. The elder brother was sentenced in April to life in prison without chance for parole.

Jeremy Wand is charged with helping his brother set a house fire last September on Oak Street in Argyle that killed his three nephews and severely burned his pregnant sister-in-law, who later lost the baby she was carrying. He's been in jail since shortly after the fire.

He pleaded guilty to first-degree intentional homicide charges for the deaths of Armin Wand III's children Allan Wand, 7, Jeffery Wand, 5, and Joseph "Jo Jo" Wand, 3. He also pleaded guilty to an attempted homicide charge for Sharon Wand, 27, to a felony murder charge for the unborn child, as well as a felony arson charge for the destroyed house. An attempted homicide charge for Jessica Wand, 2, who survived the fire with her mother, was dismissed as part of the plea deal.

All charges are "party to a crime." Investigators say Wand agreed to help his brother set the Sept. 7 fire in exchange for a promised $300 cut of the family's life insurance settlement.

The plea hearing came hours after Wand appeared in Lafayette County Circuit Court Wednesday morning, June 12, for what was to be a motion hearing in preparation for his jury trial in July.

Instead, public defender Frank Medina said Wand wanted to plead guilty.

Judge Thomas Vale delayed the plea hearing until the afternoon, to give Wand time to think over his decision. "I don't want you to feel coerced or rushed" into a plea, Vale told Wand.

At the afternoon hearing, Vale repeatedly tested Wand's knowledge of legal terms to make sure he understood what entering a plea deal means.

Wand answered clearly and solemnly. He dressed for the hearing in a boxy black suit, white Asics running shoes and no tie. A bulletproof vest showed underneath his suit coat. The wispy beginning of a beard that had started to grow on his upper lip and jaw in recent months was shaved off. His mother Barbara and sister Tammy sat a few rows behind him in the courtroom.

Whether or not Wand will be eligible for parole will be debated at his sentencing July 19. Vale requested a presentence investigation report, which is a report conducted by the Department of Corrections on all aspects of a defendant's background - upbringing, mental health, education and criminal history - ultimately making a recommendation to the judge for a sentence.

'Story to tell'

Medina said he believes Wand is "much less" culpable than his older brother and deserves a chance at parole.

"We're talking about life for an 18-year-old kid," Medina said. Taking the case to trial would've cut off any opportunity for Wand to tell his account of what happened. With the plea deal, Wand will get a chance to make a statement to the court before his sentence is handed down.

"And he's got a story to tell," Medina said.

Medina didn't get into specifics over Wand's culpability, but there are indications in the criminal complaint that during the fire Wand may have locked two of his nephews in a bedroom in a confused attempt to protect them from the flames and save them. The boys suffocated.

Degrees of culpability aside, "the level of evidence is strong" against Wand, Medina said after the hearing. Choosing to go the route of a plea deal was a "pragmatic" decision.

State prosecutor Roy Korte brushed off Medina's suggestion that Wand is any less to blame for the fire than his older brother.

"Jeremy Wand was an active participant in setting the fire," Korte said, "so I'm not sure there's a distinction." He said he had "no reason not to" recommend that the judge give Wand a life sentence without parole.

"By entering his pleas he's taken responsibility," Korte said, adding that the plea deal also relieves Sharon Wand of the trauma of reliving the night of the fire in her testimony before a jury. After speaking with Sharon Wand Wednesday, Korte said she gave her blessing to Jeremy's plea deal.