The Arizona Republic
By CHRISTINA LEONARD and DENNIS WAGNER
The Arizona Republic
A firefighter may face 10 years in prison after pleading guilty yesterday to setting last summer’s Rodeo fire, which merged with another blaze to become the most devastating wildfire in Arizona history.
Leonard Gregg confessed to two counts of arson during a hearing before U.S. District Judge James Teilborg.
Gregg, a firefighter with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, had told investigators he set fires so he could make money putting them out and because he was upset over his parents’ chronic alcoholism.
Gregg could face five years in prison for each criminal count, plus a $500,000 fine and up to $50 million in restitution. Sentencing is scheduled Jan. 12.
On the morning of June 18, Gregg lit the Piña fire several miles north of Cibecue, “hoping or expecting to fight it,” court papers say. The tribe’s fire crews extinguished that blaze and confined the damage to 1 acre.
At 3:30 p.m. the same day, Gregg ignited the Rodeo fire, which eventually merged with the Chediski blaze to blacken 470,000 acres and destroy 467 homes. Gregg was among the first firefighters to respond.
In court yesterday, Gregg responded to Judge Teilborg with one word when asked if he set the Rodeo fire: “Yes.”
During earlier court proceedings, defense attorney Deborah Euler-Ajayi cast Gregg as a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. Due to mental and emotional disorders, she argued, he was not responsible for his actions and was not competent to assist in his defense. After spending months in a federal Bureau of Prisons hospital, however, Gregg was found fit to stand trial.
The plea was not based on a negotiated agreement with prosecutors. Vincent Kirby, an assistant U.S. attorney, said Gregg is a functioning member of society who knew what he was doing. Because of the extreme fire damage, he said, a plea bargain would not have been appropriate.
Euler-Ajayi said her client decided to end the legal process because he wants to apologize for his actions and serve his punishment.
“He’s doing OK,” she added. “He’s extremely lonely and homesick. He’s in Madison Street Jail, which is a horrible place to be.”
While Gregg was held criminally responsible for setting the Rodeo fire, a Mesa woman who ignited the adjacent Chediski blaze was not prosecuted. Valinda Jo Elliott, who had been stranded and lost for three days in the rugged backcountry, set a signal fire that successfully attracted rescuers before it raged out of control.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office concluded there was no criminal intent and declined to charge Elliott with arson, which upset many Apaches and Mogollon Rim residents.
The White Mountain Tribe filed a civil suit against Elliott in tribal court, accusing her of negligence, trespassing and other offenses. Tribal prosecutors are seeking millions of dollars in compensatory damages, including reforestation and replacement of archeological, cultural and spiritual sites that were destroyed.
But Elliott’s attorney, Kevin O’Grady, has filed papers arguing that American Indian courts do not have jurisdiction over a non-Indian defendant. The court has yet to rule on his motion for dismissal.
Tribal representatives could not be reached for comment.