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35-Year-Old Sentenced in Deadly Cedar Fire

Sergio Martinez of West Covina avoids prison for accidentally starting the mammoth 2003 blaze.

November 18, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A federal judge Thursday sentenced a West Covina man to six months in a work-furlough program and 960 hours of community service for starting two small signal fires that erupted into the deadly Cedar fire, which killed 15 people and burned more than 300,000 acres in 2003.

U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez said he feels Sergio Martinez, 35, is remorseful and that no purpose would be served by sending him to prison, as many property owners whose homes were destroyed had demanded.

He noted that by setting fires on Oct. 25, 2003, Martinez was doing what he was taught in a hunter safety course.

Benitez could have sentenced Martinez to five years in prison. Instead, he ordered him to spend six months in a halfway house, which will allow him to continue working, attend church and perform community service on weekends.

Benitez said the community service should be done with Habitat for Humanity or a fire agency or any project involving rebuilding of homes destroyed by the Cedar fire.

Martinez was ordered to pay $150 a month in restitution for the next five years.

Martinez, who works for a home developer, had begged Benitez for leniency, saying that he panicked when he became separated from his companion on a deer hunting trip in the backcountry of northern San Diego County.

He said he became dehydrated and desperate and was afraid he might die. He set the fires in hopes his companion would find him.

"I didn't want my body to be found in a ravine," said the tearful Martinez. "The thirst was sucking the life out of me."

In March, Martinez pleaded guilty to starting an illegal fire on federal property, the Cleveland National Forest. Despite the deaths, federal prosecutors said there was no statute that would allow them to charge Martinez with murder or manslaughter.

For 90 minutes, 16 people who lost homes or other property to the fire took turns giving emotional accounts of the physical and psychological devastation left by the blaze that raged for 11 days.

Some called for Martinez to receive the maximum prison sentence. But others spread their anger among Martinez and various fire agencies.

Whipped by hot, dry winds, the fire soon raced toward housing developments, some protected only by volunteer fire departments. Some fire agencies were already thin because they had been required to send firefighters and equipment to battle fires in San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

Destroying 2,400 homes and inflicting an estimated $800 million in damage, the Cedar fire also highlighted the long-standing problem of marginal fire protection in much of San Diego County, including the city of San Diego.

Kimberly Hanley, whose home in Julian was destroyed, said Martinez is a scapegoat. "The real criminal is a system that let us down," she said. "The true crime is leaving [my home] to burn."

Mary Lis, another Julian homeowner, said her 80-year-old neighbor committed suicide in despair after the fire.

Diane Conklin of Ramona, a member of a committee demanding a fuller explanation from fire agencies about their performance, likened the agencies' response to the Cedar fire to the problems associated with Hurricane Katrina.

"We know from New Orleans that warnings are ignored, officials cover up, agencies respond inappropriately and people, as in the Cedar fire, ultimately suffer tremendously," she said.

Mark Jackson, whose home was also destroyed, suggested that Martinez be given probation and be required to help homeowners in the rebuilding process.

As part of his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped a charge of lying to a federal officer. Martinez had been charged with telling investigators in the hours after he was rescued that the fire was due to an accidental discharge of his weapon.

Martinez's family broke into tears when Benitez announced his decision.

Times special correspondent Neal Putnam contributed to this report.

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