Grieving Families Confront Arsonist in Court

April 2, 2009 7:24:35 PM PDT
More than two years after the crash that killed a pilot and a firefighter in Sequoia National Forest, relatives got their chance to confront the man who made that deadly flight necessary. Pilot George "Sandy" Willett and CAL-FIRE Battalion Chief Rob Stone died in September 2006 when their plane crashed in Sequoia National Forest. The two were helping put out a series of fires set by Patrick Courtney. On Thursday, Courtney was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Patrick Courtney showed no emotion as a judge told him he would spend the next 15 years of his life in prison - or during the heartbreaking testimony by the pilot and firefighter's families.

Judy Willett, Sandy Willett's wife, said "Mr. Courtney will live his consequences for his actions. But there will be an end to his consequences. Mine will have no end. I will forever have a hole in my heart."

Patrick Courtney's attorney, Roland Soltesz, says "He's tremendously regretful and wishes that none of this would've ever happened."

Pilot George "Sandy" Willett and CAL-FIRE Battalion Chief Rob Stone's plane crashed while helping fight several fires in Sequoia National Forest that Courtney set. In court, prosecutors showed a picture of Willett in front of the very plane he and Stone went down in on September 6, 2006.

Prosecutors played a video of Rob Stone talking about why he loved being a firefighter. In the video, which was taken a month before his death, Rob Stone says "One of the greatest things about my job is being able to help people."

Ginny Stone, Rob's mother, said in court, "We love Rob and miss him so much ... in so many ways. I miss his big smile, his warm hugs."

Prosecutor Tim Ward read statements from Stone's two children, who were four and eight years old when he died.

One of the statements from his now-7 year old daughter says "I miss my dad most when it's quiet at night, when kids hug their dad and kiss him, at my soccer games."

Rob Stone's wife, Rindi, said "Rob was the finest person I've ever known. I admired him for his strength of character and his dedication to everything and everyone he loved. He was honorable and hard working and a good leader. I'm a better person for having known him, I'm a stronger person for having lost him and I will forever miss him."

Tulare County CAL-FIRE Chief Ed Wristen said Courtney's sentencing brings closure but there is still a lot of heart-break among his fellow firefighters. Ed Wristen says "It was like losing one of my own sons. I have a family here and every day when those tones go off-- I worry."

In the video Rob Stone taped on August 3, 2006, he says "I believe that firefighters are born. There are a lot of them that are made, too, but once you fall in love with firefighting, you're one for life."

Patrick Courtney was also ordered to pay nearly $2 million dollars in restitution because the airplane Stone and Willet were flying in was destroyed.

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