Man in wildfires arson gets 15-year term

Man in wildfires arson gets 15-year term

3 April 2009

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Sierra wildfires in 2006 killed a firefighter and pilot in plane crash

USA — A Tulare man who pleaded no contest to setting a series of Sierra foothills wildfires that led to the 2006 death of a pilot and firefighter in a plane crash was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in prison.

Tulare County Superior Court Judge James Hollman handed down the sentence in a Visalia courtroom packed with more than 70 people, more than half of them firefighters and other members of CAL FIRE and the U.S. Department of Forestry.

In early March, Patrick Ryan Courtney, 31, entered a deal with prosecutors to plead to four counts of causing wildland fires. Courtney was accused of setting a series of fires in the Bear Creek Drainage near Balch Park between Sept. 3 and 6.

The morning of Sept. 6, CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Rob Stone, 36, of Exeter and George “Sandy” Willett, 52, of Hanford, a contract pilot for CAL FIRE, were flying over one of the fires coordinating fire crews on the ground when the plane crashed, killing both.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board determined pilot error caused the crash, Tulare County prosecutors charged Courtney — who claimed he’d been lost in the woods — with two counts of second-degree murder. His illegal actions put Stone and Willett in the situation that killed them, prosecutors said.

Courtney could have faced life in prison if convicted, but prosecutors dropped murder charges in exchange for the no-contest pleas.

Although not actually an admission of guilt, a no-contest plea is treated like a guilty plea by the court for sentencing purposes.

Without the murder charges, Courtney faced up to 22 years in prison. But prosecutors recommended a 15-year sentence as part of the agreement, Supervising District Attorney Tim Ward said Thursday.

Before the sentence was handed down, several relatives of Willett and Stone made statements to the court about how the men’s deaths affected them. Ward read letters written by Stone’s 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.

The judge also heard the words of Stone himself, as Ward played a three-minute excerpt of a video of him visiting children at an elementary school about a month before the crash.

“One of the greatest things about my job is being able to help people,” Stone told the schoolchildren. “Every day there’s something — something great. And [there’s a] chance to help people in a lot of capacities.”

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