GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A man who admitted to arson in a barn fire that killed 13 therapy horses received an unusual sentence Tuesday.
Payton Mellema set fire to The Barn for Equine Learning in Lowell Township in April. The barn doors had been locked from the inside, preventing the owners from saving the animals. Mellema, who had volunteered at the facility in the past, has a long history of mental health and behavioral issues.
On Tuesday, the 21-year-old was sentenced to serve at least three years in a secure mental health facility. An appropriate facility has not yet been decided on. If one can’t be found in the next 119 days, Mellema will be sent to prison for the next three to 10 years.
Kat Welton, the director of The Barn for Equine Learning, spoke in court before Mellema was sentenced.
“What you’ve taken is not replaceable,” she told Mellema. “My horses, my safety, my livelihood. Replaced are images of horror that return to me during my waking hours and torture me at night when I close my eyes. The imagines, sounds and smells return to me thinking how each horse panicked in their stall and ultimately laid down and died.”
“When the fire was finally beaten back, Kat and I went around hand-in-hand to each carcass burned not quite beyond recognition and stroked each one, saying goodbye,” Welton’s mother, Susan Hagen, added in court.
The barn is being rebuilt and should be finished this winter. It will house 14 horses, an expansion from the previous 12 stalls, to be used in therapy for kids and teens who have experienced trauma or abuse.
Payton Mellema was also ordered to pay restitution, which currently totals $188,500, though that number could change.