Suspect in Fresno Capt. Pete Dern arson fire gets break in court

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A big break brought an accused arsonist closer to freedom, even as she could also be closer to prison. (KFSN)

A big break brought an accused arsonist closer to freedom, even as she could also be closer to prison.

Julia Harper, 52, appeared in court Monday afternoon. She's charged with starting the fire that ultimately landed Fresno Fire Capt. Pete Dern in the hospital with burns over 60 percent of his body. Harper entered a not guilty plea and the judge actually cut her bail in half to $100,000. But with eyes across the nation on this case, that may be the last positive development she sees.

Soft-spoken and almost motionless, Julia Harper made her first court appearance Monday. Her meek persona is in stark contrast to the dangerous and harmful crime she's accused of committing. Investigators say a month ago, she set the fire that's drawn attention from all over the U.S. and the world -- the one where fire Capt. Pete Dern fell through the roof and suffered major burns.

"It's national news," said ABC30 legal analyst Tony Capozzi. "It's big in Fresno, big across the country and the country's aware of this. With her being arrested and charged, the DA's office is going to go after her with a vengeance."

Investigators say Harper already admitted to everything. She faces as long as nine years in prison on arson charges, but the defense attorney assigned to her case knew very few details about what happened.

"I vaguely heard of it and her face looked familiar to me as I walked into the courtroom," said Mark Siegel.

Siegel did mention the possibility that Harper has some mental issues. Capozzi says that's the one thing that could prevent her from getting the maximum punishment.

"The only thing I can see with her as a possible defense is her mental capabilities, whether or not there's some kind of insanity," he said.

Harper is due back in court in May and it's possible at that time her attorney will ask for psych evaluations.

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crimetrackerfirehouse firearsonarson investigationarrestfirefighter injuredfirefighterscourtcourt caseFresno
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