A Fresno woman pleaded no contest Thursday to a felony charge of starting an arson house fire that critically injured Fresno fire Capt. Pete Dern, whose dramatic rescue after falling through a burning roof was caught on videotape by a bystander.
Under a plea agreement, Julia Harper, 52, faces seven years behind bars. She is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 11 in Fresno County Superior Court.
Defense attorney Mark Siegel said Harper took the plea deal because if she had been convicted of arson in a jury trial, she would have faced 14 years in prison.
Siegel was reluctant to talk about the case until after Harper is sentenced.
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The plea came out of the blue during a status hearing. Because Harper had not had a preliminary hearing or a trial, the evidence against her has not been made public.
After Harper’s arrest, Fire Chief Kerri Donis said Harper “admitted responsibility for starting the fire,” but the fire department never said why.
164 days Pete Dern spent in the burn center before he went home in September
Dern, 50, fell through the garage roof while battling a blaze on March 29 at the house on Cortland Avenue in a neighborhood west of Manchester Center. A bystander’s video that captured Dern’s fall and the desperate scramble by fellow firefighters to rescue him attracted wide attention on social media.
Harper lived at the house that caught fire, police said. The house also was home to a number of people who rented rooms.
Chief Fire Investigator Don MacAlpine has said police had been to the house earlier in the day after being called by Harper. MacAlpine said Harper had been in a verbal disturbance with someone that an officer resolved before leaving.
Fresno police Lt. Joe Gomez also said officers were familiar with the Cortland Avenue home and had been to the address more than a dozen times in March.
Dern, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body, has had several surgeries. He was engulfed in flames for more than 90 seconds. His firefighting gear provided some protection, but it was not fireproof.
After spending 164 days in the Leon S. Peters Burn Center at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, he went home in September.
Dern could not be reached to comment Thursday. But after he was released from the hospital, he credited his wife, Kelly Dern, for being by his side from his first day at the hospital and thanked God “for collecting me out of there and giving me a second chance at life and putting everyone in place who helped along the way.”