ST. JOSEPH — Juan Mercado Sr. told a Berrien County judge Tuesday that he and his wife usually leave for work at about 9:30 p.m.
But the night of March 25, they were still home after 10 p.m. when he saw flames outside. He said he ran out to look, and the corner of his family’s home was on fire.
He, his wife, his four children and his brother-in-law all got out safely and Mercado was able to put the fire out with a garden hose, but the home at Spring Lake mobile home park on West John Beers Road in Stevensville was damaged.
Mercado testified in Berrien County Trial Court during the second day of a preliminary hearing for Jessica Mercado-Rodriguez, 27, of Dayton, Ohio. She is his sister, and is in the Berrien County jail accused of setting the fire. In earlier testimony, a nephew said she told him she was targeting the children, who range in age from 4 to 13.
Judge Gary Bruce bound Mercado-Rodriguez over for trial on one count of second-degree arson and four counts of attempted murder. She faces up to life in prison if convicted as charged.
Her lawyer, Tat Parish, objected to the bind-over and had earlier argued a motion that the preliminary hearing should have been postponed. Mercado-Rodriguez appeared at both days of the hearing by video from the jail. That is how most defendants are appearing as the court has restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Parish said the hearing should have been adjourned to a later date or his client should be in the courtroom where he can confer with her.
Bruce said the order to conduct court appearances remotely as much as possible was handed down from the state Supreme Court and must be followed.
At the first day of the hearing last week, Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Eric Dark called Royalton Township Police Officer Todd Hopke who testified that the scene smelled of gasoline and he found a cigarette lighter on the ground near the trailer.
A neighbor testified that her mobile home has a motion-activated security camera and the events of the night were captured on video. Dark has submitted the video as evidence in the case.
Also last week, the judge heard from Carlos Ramirez. He said Mercado-Rodriguez, his aunt, came to where he and his mother live at Spring Lake mobile home park the night of March 25 and said “I killed your uncle.” Ramirez testified that she said she set fire to his house because Mercado’s wife had been flirting with her husband, and she wanted to hurt his children.
“She said if my mom didn’t help her hide she was going to hurt my mom,” Ramirez testified. He said he ran to see if Mercado and his family were OK, then ran back and held Mercado-Rodriguez down until police arrived.
Under cross examination by Parish, witnesses testified that Mercado-Rodriguez appeared to be drunk or drugged the night of the incident.
Bruce set trial for Jan. 26-29. Mercado-Rodriguez is being held on a $1 million bond.