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Firefighter Accused of Setting Ariz. Blaze Pleads Not Guilty

Courts: Federal judge cites anger in the community among his reasons in denying bail. Last 4,000 evacuees are told they can go home.

July 04, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A part-time firefighter accused of intentionally starting a massive wildfire to get work pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court here, even as the last of 30,000 evacuees were told they could return home.

Leonard Gregg, 29, who is accused of starting the Rodeo fire June 18, faces 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. The Rodeo fire merged with another fire to become the largest conflagration in state history.

U.S. Magistrate Stephen Verkamp ordered that Gregg be held without bond, citing the allegation that he set the fire intentionally and that he may be suicidal.

Verkamp also said anyone housing Gregg, a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, could be targeted by angry residents driven from their homes. Gregg's family and tribal leaders on the nearby Fort Apache reservation, where he lives, have reported death threats since his arrest Saturday night.

The final 4,000 evacuees, most from the towns of Heber and Overgaard, received word that they could head home even as Gregg sat silently in court.

More than 430 homes burned to the ground in the Rodeo-Chediski fire. Officials announced Wednesday that the fire was 80% contained, thanks in part to rain falling for the first time since the blaze began.

Verkamp set a preliminary trial date of Sept. 3 for Gregg, who at his first hearing Sunday tried to apologize "for what I've done" before Verkamp cut him off, saying he should not admit guilt at that time.

Gregg's attorney, Deborah Euler-Ajayi, said after Wednesday's hearing that Gregg was not suicidal but simply very upset.

"It's distressing," Euler-Ajayi said. "He's frightened. He's never been through this process before."

In Denver, meanwhile, a federal judge delayed the trial of a recently fired U.S. Forest Service employee charged with setting the largest fire in Colorado history.

Terry Barton, 38, told investigators she accidentally started the Hayman fire when she burned a letter from her estranged husband. Prosecutors allege she purposely set the blaze, which burned 138,000 acres and destroyed 133 homes in and around Pike National Forest, 40 miles southwest of Denver.

Barton's attorney, Warren Williamson, sought the delay in order to gather more forensic evidence. Government attorneys did not oppose his request, saying they too needed more time.

Barton's trial had been set to begin Aug. 26. U.S. District Judge Richard T. Match did not schedule a new trial date.

Barton is living in a federal halfway house while she is out of jail on a $600,000 bond.

When Gregg was denied bond. Many Native Americans were upset, alleging a double standard that treats Indians and other minorities differently than whites.

"Why is the woman who started the Colorado fire out of jail?" said Al Homer, a member of the American Indian Movement, as he stood outside the Flagstaff courthouse. "Because she's Anglo. We all know that."

Some Native Americans also argue that the woman who ignited the Chediski fire, which merged with the Rodeo fire, should face charges.

The woman got lost while hiking and set a small fire to signal a passing helicopter, investigators say, but the blaze quickly spread.

Investigators believe it was an accident but note that there is no clause in the law allowing an emergency signal fire to be set when the forest is closed to fires.

The investigation in that case is ongoing.

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