Former Forest Lake firefighter sentenced to 120 days for starting blaze

Former Forest Lake firefighter sentenced to 120 days for starting blaze

24 March 2011

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USA — A former Forest Lake firefighter accused of arson was sentenced to 120 days in jail today for starting a fire that burned more than 1,500 acres of land in a nature preserve north of the Twin Cities nearly two years ago.

In addition to jail time, John David Berken — a decorated volunteer firefighter in Forest Lake from 2005 to 2009 — was sentenced in Anoka County District Court to three years probation and ordered to pay nearly $76,000 in restitution for the incident, according to Wade Kish, assistant Anoka County attorney.

The fire took place April 9, 2009 in and around the Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area in Columbus.

Nearly 200 firefighters were on hand to battle the blaze, including Berken. He was arrested while on duty after a witness said he spotted Berken throwing fireworks from his car into the area, sparking the blaze, officials have said. The witness followed Berken and gave authorities his license plate, which later led to his apprehension.

Berken entered an Alford plea in the case Jan. 18. The plea allows a defendant to maintain his innocence while conceding there is enough evidence to convict him.

The sentence was consistent with what was expected from the plea agreement, according to Marsh Halberg, Berken’s attorney. Time off for good behavior and taking in to account the time Berken has already served, Halberg said his client will only need to spend another 76 days in jail with work release.

“It’s a mixed feeling in that we thought it was a very favorable result… but on the flip side this was an Alford plea… To his dying day my client will deny he ever did this,” Halberg said about the sentencing.

Kish said the county was pleased with the results.

“Now he is a convicted arsonist. I don’t suspect he’ll be working as a firefighter any time soon if ever,” Kish said. “And he’ll be in jail for this spring’s fire season.”

Berken is to report to the Anoka County Jail on Monday.

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