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91-year-old man convicted of burning down vacant Tyler house in 2020 gets life in prison

The prosecution laid out his multiple convictions, including burglary and fraud, that span every decade since his first conviction in 1956.
Credit: Smith County

TYLER, Texas — A 91-year-old man with a lengthy criminal record has been sentenced to life in prison for burning down a vacant house near downtown Tyler in November 2020.

Kermit Francis Gabel, of Tyler, was found guilty of arson Tuesday afternoon in connection with a late-night fire on Nov. 6, 2020 that destroyed a vacant house at 205 S. Beckham Ave.

Jurors began hearing testimony Wednesday morning for the punishment phase in the 114th District Court. 

After hearing evidence regarding over 50 years of criminal convictions, the jury deliberated about 30 minutes.

On Tuesday, Gabel entered a not guilty plea. He was arrested about a week after the 2020 blaze and has been in the Smith County Jail since Nov. 11 of that year. No one was injured in the fire.

Arson, which is a first-degree felony, carries a five to 99 years in prison (or a life sentence).

Prosecutors said Gabel was convicted in 1980 in Dallas County for burglary. He was sentenced to life for that charge and later released on parole. 

The prosecution laid out his multiple convictions, including burglary and fraud, that span across three states and every decade since his first conviction in 1956 

Because jurors found that Gabel had at least two previous convictions, he faced a range of 25 years to 99 years.

After Judge Austin Reeve Jackson gave the formal sentence, Gabel mentioned how he had elected to have a jury trial instead of taking a plea deal of two years in prison. 

"Your honor, because I chose to have jury trial, my sentence went from two years to life. Welcome to Texas," Gabel said.

During closing arguments, Elizabeth Anderson, Smith County assistant district attorney, asked the jury to give Gabel a life sentence. 

He was convicted of burglary-related charges in 1956, 1961, 1964, 1981 and 2008 in Ohio. 

Also in Ohio, he was convicted of breaking and entering in 1973 and fraud and swindle in 1974. In Illinois, he was convicted of three counts of burglary in 1993. 

In 2020, Gabel was convicted of property theft between $100 and $750 out of Smith County. He was sentenced to 20 days in the county jail, records show.

"Even in 2020, he's continued to find a way to break the law," Anderson said pointing to his arson conviction. "He can't stop; he won't stop. The only thing that will stop this man even in his advanced age is a life sentence."

Noah Coltman, Smith County assistant district attorney, said that Gabel burned a house down in the middle of Tyler "like a maniac." He encouraged jurors to look at the arson conviction and Gabel's previous crimes when determining the punishment. 

"When you look at his life's work, you can tell he's nothing more than a life-long crook," Coltman said.

Gabel has been taking things from other people and burning things down for more than 60 years.

"All he does is take," he added. "This man can't be rehabilitated. We've sailed past rehabilitation probably at 1974." 

Coltman said Gabel has learned nothing since he was released on parole following his 1980 life sentence.

"He has not cared about anybody but himself for as long as you can see here. Give him a life sentence," Coltman said. 

Gabel's lawyer did not ask for a specific amount of years for the sentence, requesting the jurors to make their own decision.

Past news reports also note Gabel has a lengthy criminal record of burglary and theft.

According to 19 News out of Cleveland, Ohio, he was arrested by Shaker Heights police in Ohio in 2007 when he was nicknamed the “Silver Burglar,” according to the news station. Police said he would target jewelry, furs and other valuable items from vulnerable homes in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs.

In 2008, a Cuyahoga County, Ohio, judge sentenced Gabel to almost a decade in prison for the 2007 theft arrest, 19 News reported.

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