A Fresno woman suspected of starting a fire that critically injured Fresno firefighter Pete Dern pleaded not guilty Monday to two counts of arson.
A shackled Julia Beth Ann Harper, 52, said little during her first appearance in Fresno County Superior Court.
She replied, “Yes” when Judge Don Penner asked her whether she would waive her right to a speedy preliminary hearing. She also asked the judge if her bail could be reduced.
Penner granted her request, dropping her bail from $200,000 to $100,000.
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Her next court hearing is May 11.
Dern, a 49-year-old captain for the Fresno Fire Department, fell through the garage roof while battling the March 29 blaze at 1310 E. Cortland Avenue at Del Mar Avenue, a neighborhood that is north of Shields Avenue and west of Blackstone Avenue.
A bystander’s video of Dern’s fall and the desperate scramble by fellow firefighters to rescue him attracted wide attention on social media.
A criminal complaint accuses Harper of two felony counts of arson. One count accuses her of causing great bodily injury to Dern. The other accuses her of severely damaging the home. If convicted, she faces nine years in prison, prosecutor Chris Irwin said Monday.
Dern, who suffered second- and third-degree burns on about 65% of his body, has had several surgeries. Monday, he remained in critical condition at the Leon S. Peters Burn Center at Community Regional Medical Center, hospital spokeswoman Mary Lisa Russell said.
Harper was arrested last week after an investigation by the Fresno Fire Department. At a news conference last Thursday, Fire Chief Kerri Donis said Harper has “admitted responsibility for starting the fire” but her department has not released specific evidence against her.
That will come at the preliminary hearing, which will determine whether there is enough evidence for a judge to order Harper to stand trial on the arson charges.
Monday’s hearing was a bit chaotic. The Public Defender’s Office initially had the case, but then declared a conflict. (The conflict wasn’t disclosed in Penner’s courtroom.) Penner then approved the appointment of Fresno attorney Mark Asami to represent Harper. Asami entered Harper’s not guilty plea and argued for a lesser bail, saying the criminal complaint mentions only one incident.
Penner granted the request to reduce bail, noting for the record that if Harper is convicted of both arson charges, she can only be sentenced on one of them.
Before the hearing ended, Asami handed the case over to veteran Fresno attorney Mark Siegel. Outside the courtroom, Siegel said it was too early to determine a defense since he had just met Harper and had just received the investigative reports.
Authorities say Harper lived at the Cortland Avenue house that caught fire. The house also was home to a number of people who rented rooms, they said.
Chief Fire Investigator Don MacAlpine has said police had been to the Cortland Avenue house earlier in the day after being called by Harper. MacAlpine said Harper had been in a verbal disturbance that an officer resolved before leaving.
According to Fresno police Lt. Joe Gomez, officers were familiar with the home and had been to the address more than a dozen times in March.