Defense expert says Utah man was ’psychotic’ when he started house fire that killed his husband

Craig Crawford has pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and aggravated arson in May 2016 death of Salt Lake City restaurateur John Williams.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Craig Crawford, speaks with defense lawyer Jim Bradshaw in 3rd District Judge James Blanch's courtroom during a three-day sentencing hearing Monday August 28 in Salt Lake City. Crawford has admitted that he trapped his 72-year-old estranged husband, well-known restaurateur John Williams, inside his home and then set it ablaze last year. He pleaded guilty in June to first-degree felony counts of aggravated murder and aggravated arson. The judge will decide whether Crawford will serve life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.

On the first day of Craig Crawford’s sentencing hearing, a defense expert on Monday offered an explanation for why the man set a house fire last year that killed his husband, well-known Salt Lake City restaurateur John Williams.

“He was psychotic on that day,” Mark Cunningham, a clinical and forensic psychologist, said of Crawford.

In the days before and after the fatal fire, Cunningham testified, Crawford was delusional. Remote controls were programmed to harm him. He heard voices and grabbed items in the air that weren’t there. He offered an afternoon toast of Jack Daniel’s whiskey to “the tree people.”

The 48-year-old defendant had a well-documented history of mental health issues, Cunningham testified on the first day of sentencing for Crawford, who has pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and aggravated arson in connection with the May 2016 fire.

There was his mood disorder, the defense expert testified, and a traumatic brain injury suffered in 2012 during a bad fall while skiing. And by 2014, Crawford began using illegal drugs — which the expert said could have fueled his psychosis.

“He was self-medicating,” Cunningham testified. “[He said] his brain felt normal when he would use methamphetamine.”

Craig Crawford

Third District Judge James Blanch will continue to hear aggravating and mitigating evidence this week, and is expected to announce in September whether Crawford will be sentenced to life in prison with or without the opportunity for parole.

Cunningham was one of two defense experts to testify Monday. Defense attorneys also called radiologist Gary Stimac to testify about abnormalities found on a scan of Crawford’s brain, which he said could have been caused by the ski crash.

Prosecutors on Monday called their own psychologist, Sam Goldstein, to testify about his analysis of Crawford. Goldstein testified that Crawford’s methamphetamine use combined with his personality style and history of compulsive behavior may explain why he started the fatal fire.

“Even within his psychosis, he was still able to appreciate guilt,” Goldstein said. “He was still able to appreciate what was right and wrong.”

Crawford initially faced the potential of the death penalty for his crimes, but prosecutors agreed to take that option off the table in exchange for his guilty pleas last month.

The defendant admitted setting the couple’s Capitol Hill home on fire shortly after Williams, 72, filed for divorce and unsuccessfully sought a restraining order. The couple had been together about 20 years.

At about 1:20 a.m. on May 22, 2016, a neighbor called 911 to report that Williams’ house, near 600 North and East Capitol Street (200 East), was on fire.

Craig Crawford, right, with John Williams

Responding fire crews heard Williams cry for help from a fourth-floor bedroom, but could not reach him because the staircase between the third and fourth floor had burned and collapsed.

Charges indicate that Williams, who was in the process of evicting Crawford from the home, had expressed fear of Crawford and had filled out a petition for a protective order on May 21.

Williams was a well-known LGBT pioneer in Utah who owned the popular Market Street Grill and other restaurants.