The woman convicted in an arson-for-profit scheme that endangered a tenant’s life received the maximum possible sentence for her crime Friday: 25 years to life in state prison.
Judge Matthew Sypniewski imposed the sentence — more than even prosecutors recommended — over defendant Zabeeda Permaul’s pleas of innocence.
The judge found the proof offered in the case, that Permaul set fire to her restaurant for insurance money while she knew or should have known of her tenant’s presence upstairs, to be overwhelming.
Sypniewski also cited the danger to first-responders, along with the tenant, and Permaul’s own testimony at trial, which the judge said met every element of perjury.
“I find no compelling reason to give less than the maximum,” Sypniewski said in handing down the sentence.
A Schenectady County Court jury found Permaul guilty in March of first-degree arson and insurance fraud after less than a day of deliberations.
The jury concluded Permaul poured fuel onto the basement stairs at her 1414 State St. Charlie’s West Indian Bakery and Restaurant, set it on fire just after 11 a.m. Feb. 22, 2015, and then left as her tenant called for help from an upstairs balcony.
Firefighters returning to the station from another call rescued her and saved the building.
The city’s Arson Task Force investigated the case with help from federal agencies, including the ATF.
Prosecutor Michael DeMatteo argued at trial that, as Permaul’s business failed, she stopped paying on her debts but kept up her insurance payments. Her debts climbed to $250,000. Her insurance would have paid out double that.
Prosecutors also used the restaurant’s surveillance system against Permaul. The system caught her in the restaurant about 40 minutes before the fire, and seconds before the system went dead.
In court Friday, DeMatteo highlighted tenant Kamini Chetran’s selfless actions after discovering the fire and compared them to Permaul’s selfish ones that endangered the 26-year-old Chetran’s life.
“What’s striking to me, your honor, is the first reaction [Chetran] had was to actually go warn the defendant to leave the building, the same person that caused this. And every second she spent doing that, she was increasing the dangerousness of the situation for herself and limiting her chances to get out.”
Audio of Chetran’s panicked pounding on Permaul’s door and eventual exit to a balcony by breaking a window was preserved on her 911 call.
DeMatteo ultimately recommended a sentence of 21 years to life.
Permaul’s attorney, Sam Iroegbu, argued his client maintains her innocence and said an appeal is expected. Any prison sentence for the 55-year-old Permaul, he said, will be a lifetime for her.
Permaul argued she worked hard to pay back her debts. She eventually became emotional in maintaining that she did not commit the crime.
“I love my family and I would never do something like that to hurt no one,” Permaul said.
“I would never do something like that,” she said through tears. “I’m innocent of this. Please. Please.”
Sypniewski noted there are few crimes that carry such long sentences, but they carry them for good reason. First-degree arson has the same maximum as someone convicted of second-degree murder.
The elements of arson-for-profit and the presence of the tenant in the building added up to the first-degree arson conviction.
“Today’s sentence should be a lesson to anyone who would contemplate this in the future,” Sypniewski said.