Eau Claire man pleads guilty to arson of occupied house

Nov. 14—EAU CLAIRE — An Eau Claire man pleaded guilty to reduced charges for setting a house on fire earlier this year while seven people slept inside.

Thomas T. Hicks, 42, pleaded guilty to seven counts of second-degree recklessly endangering safety and one count of arson during a Monday morning plea hearing in Eau Claire County Court.

Prosecutors agreed to dismiss seven counts of attempted first-degree intentional homicide as well as reducing the recklessly endangering safety charges down from first-degree.

Hicks is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 6. The charges he pleaded guilty to carry a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison for each count of endangering safety and up to 46 years on the arson charge, according to court documents. He is being prosecuted as a repeat offender for arson as he was convicted of a similar crime over a decade ago.

Hicks appeared at Monday's plea hearing via videoconference from Waupun Correctional Institution. He has been behind bars since he was arrested in late January after the fire. On Jan. 25, Eau Claire County Judge Jon Theisen set Hicks' bond at $1 million cash.

Hicks pleaded guilty to setting his residence at 735 Hobart St. on fire in the middle of the night on Jan. 21 without warning the people inside. His stepson and six other people escaped the burning residence without injury, but one complained of smoke inhalation.

Firefighters and police responded to the fire at about 12:54 a.m. that night.

On a report that the arson suspect left the house in a blue pickup truck, an Eau Claire police officer stopped the vehicle near Madison Street and Oxford Avenue and identified Hicks as the driver. Hicks had a lighter in his jacket pocket and his clothing smelled of smoke, the officer stated.

Hicks admitted to police that he started the fire because he was angry with his wife and "my mindset ain't right," according to the criminal complaint. His wife texted him that she was done with their marriage and that triggered him to start the fire, he said.

He dumped gasoline on a bed and carpet in his wife's bedroom, used a lighter to start the fire and ran out of the house as he heard a smoke detector going off. Both Hicks and those who escaped the house told police that he did nothing to alert people inside about the fire, according to the criminal complaint.

Hicks' wife was not at home when the fire began, but arrived later to talk to police. She believed her husband must have started the fire because he'd done it before in a previous marriage.

Online court records show Hicks received five years of probation for a felony conviction for arson to a building during 2009 in Oneida County.

On Feb. 1 — less than two weeks after the Eau Claire fire — Hicks' wife filed for divorce. During a June hearing, Eau Claire County Court Commissioner Wendy Sue Johnson declared that the marriage was "irretrievably broken" and granted the divorce, based on online court records. Among assets discussed was a $50,000 insurance payment for the home destroyed by fire.