Tulare Man Pleads No Contest to Arson Fire That Killed Firefighter, Pilot

March 3, 2009 7:59:27 PM PST
A South Valley man is going to prison after admitting to starting several wildland fires that lead to the deaths of a firefighter and a pilot. Pilot George "Sandy" Willet and firefighter Rob Stone were killed when their plane crashed in Sequoia National Forest in September 2006. They were helping fight fires that Patrick Courtney set.After battling his case for two and a half years in court, Patrick Courtney entered a "guilty" plea for recklessly starting four wildfires in Sequoia National Forest. The plea brings closure for the families of pilot George "Sandy" Willet and firefighter Rob Stone.

On Tuesday, Patrick Courtney changed his plea from "not guilty" to "guilty" to setting the four fires.

Prosecutor Tim Ward said, "The defendant admitted that one of the counts is in fact a serious felony so if he's convicted of a felony in the future that could be used as a strike on his record."

Pilot George "Sandy" Willet and CAL-FIRE Battalion chief Rob Stone were in an air tactical plane helping coordinate fire fighters on the ground when they crashed.

Tim Ward says, "That's what the families wanted in this case ? an admission on his part that he's responsible not only for the fires but for the death of Mr. Stone and Sandy Willet, as well."

As part of this plea deal, Courtney will not face any murder charges. His attorney says Courtney is disappointed but happy he can start to put the incident behind him.

Patrick Courtney's attorney Roland Soltesz said, "I think there's a tremendous sense of sorrow for what happened. This wasn't an intentional act by any means. This was something that happened. The fires were started, he was lost in the forest and he set these small fires."

Patrick Courtney will be back in court in April for his sentencing. He'll get 15 years in prison, far less than the life sentence he was facing.

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