George Souliotes, photo courtesy Northern California Innocence Project
MODESTO, CA - A 16-year-old case in which three Modesto residents died in a suspicious fire has finally come to a conclusion with the defendant pleading no contest to negligence.
And because George Souliotes had already served 16 years in prison on an earlier trial verdict that found him guilty of murder and arson in the Jan. 15, 1997 deaths of Michelle Jones, 30; her son Daniel, 6; and daughter Amanda, 3, he was to be released Tuesday, July 2. However, the Salinas jail where he is being held is holding up his release, say his attorneys.
According to the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office, the victims were tenants in a home at 1319 Ronald Avenue owned by Souliotes and he was evicting them. However, because of a paperwork problem, Souliotes learned he had to start over with the eviction process. An eyewitness testified seeing Souliotis on the day of the deadly arson going into the backyard of the Ronald Avenue property carrying a white bag and then shortly after, flames erupted from the back of the house. Souliotes' Winnebago with the defendant behind the wheel was also identified by the witness as driving in front of home several times, including when the fire started.
After his 2000 conviction, Souliotes filed several appeals and even though his conviction was upheld, in 2006, the court ordered all evidence presented in his murder trial purged from the court record.
Earlier this year, a federal district court judge granted Souliotes a new trial based on the argument the defendant had inadequate defense representation at his murder trial.
With trial evidence no longer admissible and the agreement of the victims' husband and father, Daniel Jones, Sr., county prosecutors charged Souliotes with three counts of involuntary manslaughter. The defendant entered a no contest plea to allegations he didn't maintain a working smoke alarm at the Ronald Avenue house and because of his negligence, Michelle Jones and her children died in the fire. He was sentenced to two years in prison for each victim but with time already served, he was to be immediately released.
Said son Aleko Souliotes, "It's bittersweet. We don't want anybody to question his innocence, but we wanted him out as soon as possible."
George Souliotes is now 72. A condition of the plea deal is that he waived any further right to appeal.
The Northern California Innocence Project represented Souliotes.