Firefighter sentenced for wildfire arson says 'I didn't set that fire'

7:58 PM, Mar 24, 2011   |    comments
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ANOKA, Minn. -- John Berken, volunteer firefighter turned defendant, knew walking into the Anoka County Courthouse, that he would be sentenced to 76 days in jail for felony wildfire arson.

Coming out of court he told reporters: "Until the day I die I'll go to the grave saying that I didn't set that fire."

The fire burned 3.5 square miles of the Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge in April of 2009. Investigators say a witness saw a man driving a truck shoot something into a ditch. Police traced the plates, the witness identified the driver as Berken, and he was arrested, while he fought that very fire for the Forest Lake Fire Department.

Berken's attorney, Marsh Halberg, says he would have loved to argue this case in front of a judge. "To think a guy driving down the road, take this big mortar style object, light it with a lighter, lean out the passenger side of the car while you're driving, shoot that..." Halberg wondered.

The case didn't go to trial. Berken entered an Alford Plea, meaning he maintains his innocence but recognized a jury could convict him based on the state's evidence. He also gets three years probation on top of his 76 days (plus credit for four days served).

"You're putting your life into 12 other people's hands. We felt 95% that we'd win that case but when you have a family you can't risk 5 or 10 days in jail versus 76 days," Berken said.

John Berken will also be making $250 monthly payments over the course of the next few decades for restitution. He owes more than $76,000 for the fire.

He will return to the Anoka County jail on Monday to finish serving his time.

The Forest Lake Fire Chief wrote a letter to the judge to consider while handing down a sentence. In the letter, Chief Gary Sigfrinius wrote "John Berken took our most prized possession; our honor."

Assistant County Attorney Wade Kish said he was happy with the agreement and happy that Berken would never be a firefighter again.

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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