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Forester Pleads Not Guilty in Blaze

Court: Federal worker is accused of deliberately setting the wildfire, the largest in Colorado's history. The judge sets bail at $600,000.

June 21, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Lynn Barton pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that she deliberately set the largest wildfire in Colorado history.

A federal judge set bail for Barton with several stipulations. His ruling came after a 3 1/2-hour hearing in which prosecutors outlined their case against the 18-year Forest Service veteran.

Prosecutors said Thursday that Barton lied about accidentally starting the fire after burning a letter from her estranged husband. There was no letter, they say. They said an angry Barton deliberately set the fire and even rearranged rocks in a campfire ring so that the flames would escape. Then, prosecutors say, Barton covered up her crime and lied about it.

The 38-year-old mother of two cried at times and smiled to acknowledge a parade of friends who testified as character witnesses. She waved to supporters as she was led from the courtroom. She did not immediately post bond.

In granting the $600,000 bail, Judge Michael Watanabe said the evidence presented indicated Barton had "lived an exemplary life," but as a condition of her release he ordered Barton to stay at a halfway house, not leave the state and forbade her from entering a forest.

A federal grand jury Wednesday charged Barton with setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property, injuring a firefighter and using fire to commit a felony. If found guilty of all the charges, Barton could face a maximum of 65 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Barton was patrolling the Pike National Forest on June 8 looking for violators of the state's fire ban when the Hayman fire began. Late that afternoon, she reported an out-of-control campfire and said she battled it but it grew too large.

Fire investigators quickly began to doubt her story. After repeated interrogations, Barton allegedly confessed to accidentally starting the fire. Authorities said she told them she was upset and burned a two-page letter from her estranged husband in a campfire ring.

But in testimony Thursday, Forest Service special agent Brenda Schultz said it appeared that Barton had manipulated the rocks in the fire ring to allow flames to escape and said burned grass and part of a stick were found in the fire pit.

Schultz said that Barton's husband, John, told investigators he never wrote his wife a letter. Schultz also said no ash from paper was found.

Using enlarged maps of the fire area and photographs as exhibits, Assistant U.S. Atty. William L. Taylor took Schultz through the painstaking investigation, in which officials concluded that Barton could not have smelled smoke from the distance she claimed and that Barton deliberately set the fire.

Schultz said investigators concluded that the fire--which has burned 136,000 acres--grew rapidly, moving at a foot per second.

Taylor questioned Barton's co-workers about her actions at work the day of the fire, suggesting that she was upset that no one would agree to go on patrol with her that afternoon.

He also said that Barton had requested to attend a federal arson investigation school.

Witnesses called by federal public defender Warren Williamson praised Barton for her devotion to her job, her family and her community. They characterized her as a caring woman who was on the verge of detaching herself from a troubled marriage.

Co-worker Megen Kabele said of John Barton: "He's not a reliable person. [Terry] has had to be the reliable adult for her girls."

Barton's supervisor, Sara Mayben, called Barton one of her most trusted employees and described the tense scene when she said Barton told her she had set the fire.

"I think her words were, 'You're going to be mad at me.' I don't think I was mad at her. I think I was just more shocked and saddened," Mayben said.

Mayben was among those who told authorities after Barton's disclosure June 15 that the distraught woman might attempt suicide. That night Barton stayed in a hotel room in Colorado Springs with her eldest daughter and a friend.

She was arrested without incident the next day.

Taylor argued that Barton was a flight risk because of public outrage over the damage wrought by the fire.

He said Barton had received death threats and that her sister, who has been caring for Barton's children, took the girls and left their home at the suggestion of the sheriff.

But half a dozen witnesses said Barton's good work in the community had engendered support and that she was the kind of person who would take responsibility for her actions.

"She's a person who cares what people think about her," said Jason Lee Chappell, a Forest Service worker who is dating Barton's daughter. "She couldn't live with herself if she didn't stay. I think she really believes she should put it right."

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