District Court Judge Todd Plewe was skeptical of a plea bargain presented by prosecutors for a man charged with starting a wildfire south of Dolores.
Roger “Bucky” Stratton, 54, has been charged with fourth degree arson, a class four felony for neglecting burning embers on his property and starting a 400-acre fire October 24.
According to court documents, during his arrest Oct. 25 Stratton told sheriff deputies “I didn’t knowingly, maybe recklessly, but not knowingly start a fire.”
During a hearing Friday with Stratton present, public defender Amy Smith said Stratton was ready to plead guilty and accept a plea agreement offered by the DA office.
The deal is for a 24-month deferred sentence, no jail time, 24 month probations, restitution paid to victims, compliance with all fire restrictions, court costs and fees.
But Judge Plewe said he needed more assurance that the victims of the fire will receive adequate compensation for damages by the end of the deferred sentence.
“I have a real concern with the plea agreement. If he completes the deferred judgment successfully, then is the restitution also discharged and he does not have to pay?” Plewe asked.
Plewe reserved making a decision on whether to accept the plea agreement until more information on restitution guarantees are presented.
If victims get shorted on compensation, “it becomes a civil matter forcing each person to sue individually, and that is not in the best interest of the victims,” Plewe said.
Deputy DA Lynda Carter explained later that defendants are compelled to pay restitution; otherwise the deferred sentence is revoked and they are faced with jail time. Fourth degree arson carries a sentence of 2-6 years.
“The main reason for this plea is so the victims can get restitution because if he goes to prison, he has no ability to pay,” she said. “If the deferred sentence is revoked, the restitution will not go away because it is a criminal court order.”
Plewe pointed out in court at least two insurance claims totaling $25,000 have been filed in the records.
Restitution typically covers deductibles of the claims, so victims do not have out-of-pocket expenses.
Court records show the Roatcap fire started Oct. 24 on Stratton’s property at Road P.5 and Road 29. Fanned by high winds, the fast-moving fire consumed 400 acres in 24 hours, forcing the evacuation of 30 families.
According to the county, the fire cost $200,000 to $250,000 to extinguish, and involved multiple area fire departments and crews.
Sheriff detective Adam Eastman reported that Stratton “told me he was responsible for the fire,” according to arrest reports. The reports explain that coals were placed near a burn pit, and rekindled, catching nearby vegetation on fire. Stratton attempted to put the fire out, but was unsuccessful and it jumped into Simon Draw and rapidly spread into dry pinon-juniper forest.
During the investigation, Stratton told Detective Eastman that “it was a dumb-ass mistake” on his part for starting the fire, according to court documents.
Another plea hearing is scheduled for June 4 at 10 a.m. in District Court.