Forest Service worker pleads innocent

By TERI SPRACKLAND  |  June 20, 2002 at 9:09 PM
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DENVER, June 20 (UPI) -- A U.S. Forest Service employee pleaded innocent Thursday to federal charges that she intentionally set the largest wildfire in Colorado history and a federal magistrate set her bond at $600,000 with strict conditions on her movement.

Terry Barton, a 38-year-old recreation technician, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Michael J. Watanbe, who set her bond after listening for four hours to a government investigator and seven character witnesses who testified for the Forest Service worker.

Brenda Schultz, a Forest Service criminal investigator, testified she found a "tunnel" of rocks at the campsite where Barton allegedly started the fire. She said rocks had been moved at a campfire ring to make the "tunnel" to send the fire into underbrush.

"It fit in like a jigsaw puzzle," she said.

Schultz also said Barton's estranged husband told investigators he had not written a letter as the defendant claimed. The Forest Service worker said she accidentally started the fire when she burned the letter at a campsite in the Pike National Forest.

Seven character witnesses testified in support of Barton's bid for bail.

Megan Kabele, a co-worker and friend, said Barton has always stood up to her problems and would not flee if released on bond.

"She is an open, loving person, a resilient soul that has always treated people in her family and at work with generosity."

Another character witness, Stephanie Howard, said Barton stayed with her the night before the fire started because her estranged husband had returned home and would not leave. She suggested that Barton had arrived at her house very upset.

Howard was asked if she was saying Barton's husband caused her to set the fire.

"Indirectly, yes I am," she said. "I believe she wanted him out of the house, he wouldn't leave, which caused desperation."

Government prosecutors argued against bail for the part-time Forest Service worker who lives near the fire in Teller County.

If convicted, Barton could be sentenced to up to 65 years in prison on four federal charges. She faces two charges related to setting the fire on federal property, a charge of using fire to injure a firefighter, and a charge of using fire to commit a felony.

Watanbe approved bond for Barton because the case did not involve violence and the defendant did not appear to present a future danger. He also said her character "up to June 8 can best be described as exemplary, caring and helpful."

Barton will stay in a halfway house and be permitted out only for meetings involving her legal case or medical reasons. She cannot leave Colorado or enter a national forest.

Barton was indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury in Denver and two of the counts are arson charges.

"These counts reflect the government's contention that the Hayman fire was deliberately set," said U.S. Attorney John Suthers. "Beyond that, we cannot and will not go into specifics regarding the defendant's intent or motive."

Barton could also face state charges in connection with the 136,000-acre Hayman fire, which continues to burn about 40 miles southwest of Denver. At least 25 homes, a commercial building and 13 outbuildings have been destroyed.

Nearly 8,000 residents have been forced from their homes by the blaze that federal officials say may take months to finally contain. They have estimated that the final firefighting costs may reach $52 million.

Barton, who patrolled the Pike National Forest to prevent fires, had initially reported the blaze like she had discovered it June 8 but her story later came into question, according to federal investigators. Experts said she could not have smelled the fire from her location.

When confronted, Barton said she was burning a letter from her estranged husband at a campsite and the fire got out of control. She said it was an accident and she attempted to stop the blaze before calling in the initial report.

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