A former California Highway Patrol officer who touched off a massive manhunt after claiming he had been shot by a motorist pleaded guilty Friday to obstructing the investigation but will receive no jail time.
Gary Lee Burnett, an 11-year CHP veteran, was fired in January after detectives accused him of fabricating his story about the August 1999 shooting.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Gary Paer sentenced Burnett to three years of probation, one year of mandatory psychological counseling and 450 hours of community service. Burnett was also fined $2,000.
The agreement closes the books on a highly publicized case in which authorities spent weeks and an estimated $40,000 searching for an assailant that detectives later concluded did not exist.
Prosecutors expressed satisfaction with the deal, saying a prime objective was to make sure Burnett received emotional help.
"This is a fair disposition to the case," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Ebrahim Baytieh. "He's no longer a peace officer and he's going to have to undergo one year of psychological counseling. Holding him accountable and mandatory psychological counseling were our main goals."
On Friday, Burnett signed a court document admitting that he made an "untrue statement" to detectives investigating the alleged attack. The court document did not address whether Burnett staged the shooting, and his lawyer declined to answer that question after the hearing.
Burnett, 40, told investigators that a white male shot him twice during a traffic stop on the I-5 Freeway, just north of Avenida Pico in San Clemente. He said the gunman was driving a new red Toyota pickup without license plates.
The officer drove himself to a San Clemente hospital after the shooting. He was treated for a gunshot wound to his right arm. A second bullet was stopped by a tape recorder in his shirt pocket.
After Burnett recovered from the shooting, he was treated like a hero in the community. He wept at a political fund-raiser when given a standing ovation and spoke about his reported brush with death during an interview published in a CHP magazine.
He told Highway Patrolman magazine that he drove himself to the hospital because "I wasn't about to wait around for the guy to come back and finish the job."
The officer also said doctors were impressed by his quick recovery.
"They called it a miracle," he said.
Discrepancies with physical evidence--there was no blood on the freeway shoulder, for instance--led sheriff's detectives to eventually conclude that Burnett fabricated the story.
Detectives also became suspicious because Burnett discarded the barrel of his off-duty gun after they called him and asked for it; he said it was defective.
A barrel can link a gun to a fired bullet.
As part of a plea agreement, Baytieh dropped charges of making a false report of an emergency and destroying evidence. The prosecutor declined to say whether he thought Burnett shot himself.
"This investigation started with investigators from the Sheriff's Department looking for a suspect [who] allegedly had tried to kill a peace officer," Baytieh said.
"After a thorough investigation, we believe there is no outstanding suspect who attempted to kill a peace officer."
Burnett's attorney, Paul Meyer, said the plea means only that Burnett made a single false statement during the investigation. It is not an admission that the shooting happened any other way than Burnett initially described, Meyer said.
Asked to explain how the officer was injured, Meyer said, "I'm making no comment with regard to that. This settlement speaks for itself."