Woman who started Colorado wildfire could see early release from prison
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER ” A woman who admitted starting the worst wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history could be released within a year after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled prosecutors cannot withdraw their plea agreement.
The ruling Monday raises the possiblity that Terry Lynn Barton could be released after serving a 6-year federal prison term for setting the June 2002 Hayman fire, though 4th Judicial District Attorney John Newsome plans to argue Barton should face some state prison time.
A judge handed down a 12-year sentence, which is double the maximum 6-year sentence, citing aggravating factors. Barton’s attorneys appealed, arguing the judge shouldn’t have handed down the sentence because he lived near the fire and had to voluntarily evacuate his house.
The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that only a jury could find aggravating factors and voided the sentence in 2004. Prosecutors then argued that Barton’s appeal of her sentence violated the terms of the plea agreement, which allowed them to withdraw it. The ruling Monday rejected that argument.
“The most we can get is six years,” 4th Judicial District Attorney John Newsome told The Gazette. “There’s nothing myself or the other DAs can do about it.”
Her next court hearing is scheduled for Feb. 11.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to allow Barton to serve her sentence concurrently, or at the same time, as the federal sentence.
Newsome said he plans to argue that because the state sentence was voided, it wasn’t completed while Barton was in federal prison.
Barton’s public defender, Mark Walta, said he will argue Barton can’t be sent to state prison after she’s released from federal prison in Texas.
“Any sentence imposed on resentencing will, in my view, have to honor ” and give effect to ” this provision of the plea agreement,” Walta said in an e-mail to The Gazette.
A fire spotter for the U.S. Forest Service at the time, Barton said she was trying to extinguish an illegal campfire but later admitted setting the fire by burning a letter in a drought-stricken area.
The fire scorched 138,000 acres, destroyed 133 homes and forced more than 8,000 people to leave their homes.
Barton pleaded guilty to state and federal felony arson charges in January 2003.
Aside from prison, Barton also was ordered to pay $42.2 million in state and federal restitution.
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There is a lot of pent up energy among hikers and bikers to get into the high country, but snow fields, avalanche debris and high stream crossings are presenting challenges later than usual. Forest rangers with the Aspen-Sopris District provide trail condition reports that are updated each week so hikers and backpackers aren’t caught unaware.