Man must pay at least $4 million, serve 90 days for Catalina fire
Gary Dennis Hunt, a contract worker who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor arson charge after accidentally touching off a wildfire on Catalina Island in 2007, was ordered Tuesday to pay more than $4 million in restitution to victims of the fire.
It is an amount that could grow to more than $5 million when Hunt, 51, returns to court later this fall to determine how much restitution he owes to one victim, Southern California Edison, that had not calculated its loss in time for Tuesday’s sentencing, the court warned.
Defense attorney Michael Zimbert said the restitution and fines will be paid by the insurance covering the company for which Hunt was contracted to work.
Long Beach Superior Court Judge Judith Meyer also ordered Hunt to serve 90 days in county jail and five years’ formal probation, citing the agreement between the prosecution and defense that the defendant, and society as a whole, would not benefit by throwing Hunt in prison.
“Make no mistake, the court went along with this sentence because it was discussed with me by both counsel, you should credit both,” Meyer said, adding that though the blaze was an accident, it was ignited after clear warning of the danger.
Hunt pleaded no contest to a felony arson charge that he touched off the brush fire on Catalina Island in 2007 that caused an estimated $20 million in damage to several structures, including one family’s home, and 4,000 acres of land.
Hunt had faced multiple counts that carried a much longer sentence than the single count Hunt pleaded to back in February, Zimbert explained earlier this year. “I told the (prosecutor) on Day One that if she could file felony stupid, it applies, but this is not a case of criminal intent,” Zimbert said at that time.
Hunt was working as a subcontractor on the island on May 10, 2007, when the fire erupted.
He used an open-flame torch – despite clearly posted warnings of extreme fire danger and that open flames were not permitted – to cut cables on the island’s radio tower, authorities said.
On the first day of work, sparks from the torch fell onto nearby brush and caused several small spot fires that Hunt put out, Zimbert said.
Hunt returned the following day and under the same hot, dry and windy conditions, used the torch again, this time starting a blaze that rapidly spread out of control, Zimbert said.
The brush fire required the response of firefighters from Los Angeles County and beyond. Several firefighters were injured while working in the rugged terrain of the island.
Hunt reported the fire to authorities, admitted he sparked the blaze from the start and remains extremely remorseful, Zimbert said.
Hunt declined comment outside the courtroom Tuesday afternoon.
In exchange for the plea, Hunt was also sentenced to 90 days in jail, to be served in the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail or in a similar facility in his home state of Indiana, and five years of formal probation.
Hunt can opt to serve the jail time on a CalTrans work crew in California, or through a similar program in Indiana if it exists, or could choose to serve more than 100 hours of community service, provided it meets with court approval.
The court ordered Hunt pay $85,000 in restitution to the Wilson family that lost their home in the blaze. He was ordered to pay $2,886,536.82 to the Santa Catalina Island Co. and $1,152,377 to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, entities that monitor the island’s economic and residential and ecological interests, respectively.
For every year restitution is not paid, 10 percent interest will be tacked on, the judge said.
And the criminal case does not preclude victims from suing Hunt in civil court, he was warned Tuesday.
In addition to restitution, Hunt was ordered to pay more than $2,000 in victim’s fund and court fines, he must register as a convicted arsonist, and he has to submit DNA and fingerprint samples.
Judge Meyer told Hunt he has until his next court appearance, scheduled for Nov. 19, to decide whether he will serve his time in L.A. County or in Indiana, or whether he will opt for community service.
Although he can serve his probation in Indiana, the judge made it clear she will follow his progress personally for the next five years.
“I will work with you all to make sure this probation is successful,” Meyer said pointedly.
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