Firefighter Pleads Guilty in Arizona Blaze

October 20, 2003

PHOENIX (Oct.  20) - A part-time firefighter accused of trying to make work for himself by starting what became the biggest wildfire in Arizona history pleaded guilty Monday.


The fire Leonard Gregg started last year combined with another to form the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, which destroyed hundreds of homes and forced 30,000 people to evacuate as it burned 469,000 acres of private, Forest Service and Fort Apache Reservation land.


Gregg, who also was charged with starting a smaller fire, pleaded guilty to two federal counts of intentionally setting a fire.  He could get up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced in January.


Deborah Euler-Ajayi, Gregg's attorney, said Gregg had wanted to plead guilty for some time, but she wanted to be sure he was mentally competent to make that decision.  He had spent about six months at a mental health facility in North Carolina.


"He wanted to get it over with, get this behind him, serve his time and make his public apologies," she said.


Gregg, 31, is from the Fort Apache reservation community of Cibecue.  Prosecutors said he started the Rodeo fire to earn $8 an hour fighting it.  He also has said his parents' alcoholism fueled a rage that led him to start the blaze.


Euler-Ajayi had previously argued that Gregg was not mentally competent to stand trial, saying he suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.


Federal prosecutor Vincent Kirby said it was clear from the beginning that Gregg knew what he had done.  He said Gregg tried to apologize shortly after his arrest but a federal magistrate cut him off.


Linda Parrish of Show Low, a city that had been threatened by the fire, said Gregg's guilty plea can bring some closure to residents.


"He knew he did wrong.  He got caught red-handed," said Parrish, owner of the Show Low Flower Shoppe.  "He finally got what was due him."


The other half of the Rodeo-Chediski fire was set by Valinda Jo Elliott, who had been lost in the wilderness for two days when she set the fire to signal a helicopter.  Federal prosecutors declined to charge her, but the White Mountain Apache Tribe has filed a civil complaint against her in tribal court.


Show Low Mayor Gene Kelley said residents generally have more sympathy for Gregg because of his mental problems than they do for Elliott, whose fire was closer to most of the burned homes.


"There is a tremendously greater sense of anger at the whole system finding her not responsible," he said.


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