Ex-forest employee admits to setting fire

By Jennifer Hamilton
Associated Press
Dec. 7, 2002

DENVER - A former U.S. Forest Service employee pleaded guilty Friday to starting the biggest wildfire in Colorado history, which destroyed 133 homes and cost more than $29 million to contain.

Terry Barton, 38, admitted setting fire to federal land and making false statements to investigators in a plea agreement that calls for a sentence of six years in federal prison, according to court documents. She would serve five years and one month with time off for good behavior. Sentencing was set for Feb. 21.

There was no decision on how much Barton should pay in fines or restitution. Prosecutors claim $38 million in property damage to federal land, not including private homes and other structures.

Barton, whose job included watching for fires, told investigators she accidentally started the blaze in June while burning a letter from her estranged husband in a campfire ring. Authorities believed she started the fire deliberately.

Barton was fired after she was arrested.

During the hearing, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch asked Barton if she believed the fire was extinguished before she left. "Yes, I did," she replied.

Barton remained free pending sentencing. She and defense lawyer Warren Williamson declined comment after the hearing.

U.S. Attorney John Suthers said his office would not comment before the completion of a pre-sentencing investigation, which will examine the prison sentence and restitution.

The 137,000-acre fire southwest of Denver, which started June 8 and was brought under control July 19, was one of several that raged in Colorado this year.

State officials are considering additional charges of arson against Barton for the homes and businesses destroyed in the fire.

Prosecutors expected to file those charges as early as next week, said Don May, the assistant district attorney for Teller County.

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