California, USA — Steven Emory Butcher was convicted of starting fires in 2006 and 2002 in Los Padres National Forest. He is sentenced to 45 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $100 million in restitution.
A mentally ill homeless man was sentenced Monday to 45 months in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $100 million in restitution for starting two wildfires in 2006 and 2002 that burned more than 162,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest.
A self-described nature lover, Steven Emory Butcher, 50, was convicted in February of igniting the monthlong Day fire in 2006 that injured 18 people, destroyed 11 structures and cost more than $100 million to suppress, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. He had been burning debris on Labor Day in Piru Canyon, where he had set up a campsite. The jury also convicted Butcher of starting the 70-acre Ellis fire four years earlier, about two miles southeast of where the Day Fire began.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said “the likelihood of [Butcher] being able to meet that restitution payment is extremely slim. But we’ll do everything we can to recover whatever we can from him.”
Mrozek said his office “wanted to send a message to people that if you’re engaged in this type of activity, you may be held liable.” Butcher was found guilty of two felony counts of starting fires and three misdemeanor counts of allowing a fire to escape his control, violating restrictions by building a fire on federal forest land and smoking in a federal forest.
“If I would have been on the jury, I would have found myself guilty too,” Butcher told U.S. District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank.
After both fires, Butcher sought emergency treatment for burns. Butcher also suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, depression and alcoholism, as well as chronic back pain and tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, said his attorney, Mark Windsor.
Windsor said Butcher “never intended any harm to occur” and “feels horrible” about starting the forest blazes. Butcher lived in a Simi Valley apartment building for 13 years before his worsening medical conditions drove him to a tent near the highway, where the noise of passing cars eased his tinnitus, Windsor said. Over the years, Butcher established about 20 campsites in Los Padres National Forest and would live at them for extended periods, he said.
“Obviously you want to deter people from making the kind of mistakes that sometimes lead to catastrophic forest fires, but bear in mind that there was no criminal intent on the part of Mr. Butcher,” Windsor said, adding that he believed that Butcher’s nearly four-year prison sentence was too long. Prosecutor Joseph O. Johns, chief of the U.S. attorney’s office environmental crimes section, had argued for a 10-year sentence.
Windsor said the $101,652,000 in restitution to the Los Padres National Forest was “an unbelievably large number” that his client will never be able to pay.
Butcher receives about $1,000 a month in Supplemental Security income and will be required to pay what he can, Windsor said.
“For the rest of his life, he’ll be paying off that $100 million of restitution,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Los Padres National Forest will never be fully repaid.”