A criminal case that made national news a year ago when a bystander’s video showed Fresno fire Capt. Pete Dern falling through a burning roof, followed by his dramatic rescue by fellow firefighters, ended Wednesday when the woman who pleaded no contest to starting the house fire was sentenced to nine years in prison.
In announcing the sentence, Superior Court Judge Don Penner said Julia Beth Ann Harper, 53, has expressed remorse and has told authorities that she is sorry for seriously injuring Dern, who spent six months in the burn unit at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno.
“She said she is praying for Capt. Dern,” Penner said.
The sentence was the result of a deal in April in which Harper pleaded no contest to arson. She also admitted her actions caused great bodily injury to Dern, who has had 55 surgeries after suffering serious injuries to his entire body.
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An earlier effort for a plea deal was derailed in February when Penner rejected the seven-year prison term agreed to by the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and Harper’s counsel. The initial deal fell apart because Dern and his family were not consulted. Under Marsy’s Law, the California Victims Bill of Rights Act of 2008, victims have the right to be notified of all court proceedings and potential plea agreements.
He has night terrors. I’m not sure if he will ever go back to work.
Judge Don Penner said of Capt. Pete Dern
Dern and his family did not attend Wednesday’s hearing. Prosecutor Dennis Verzosa, however, told the judge that he met with Dern and his family twice, and they agreed with Harper’s punishment.
Defense attorney Mark Siegel, who represented Harper, said she accepted the plea because, if convicted at trial, she could have faced up to 14 years in prison.
As part of the plea agreement, Harper must register as an arsonist with local law enforcement once she gets out of prison, Penner said. Her plea also constitutes a strike under the three-strikes repeat offender law.
Dern, 50, fell through the garage roof on March 29, 2015, while battling a blaze at the house on Cortland Avenue in a neighborhood west of Manchester Center near Blackstone and Shields avenues. He suffered second- and third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body after being 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, Dern went home in September, but he has not returned to work.
Police say Harper lived at the house that caught fire. The residence also was home to a number of people who rented rooms. Fresno police Lt. Joe Gomez said officers were familiar with the Cortland Avenue home and had been to the address more than a dozen times in March 2015.
At the time of the fire, Chief Fire Investigator Don MacAlpine 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.
At a news conference announcing Harper’s arrest, fire Chief Kerri Donis said Harper “admitted responsibility for starting the fire.”
Penner said Wednesday that it could be two or three years before Dern can use his hands again. The judge also said Dern’s wife had to take a leave of absence from her job to care for her husband.
“He has night terrors,” Penner said of Dern. “I’m not sure if he will ever go back to work.”
She’s not a monster.
Defense attorney Mark Siegel said of Julia Beth Ann Harper
Outside court Wednesday, Siegel said Harper is “sincerely remorseful about what happened. She wishes it hadn’t happened and wishes she could take his place.”
Siegel said he was upset with the public’s portrayal of Harper.
“She’s not a monster,” Siegel said. “She’s a human being who has had a rough life, a good portion of it on the streets.”
He said Harper has “mental issues,” not enough to declare her incompetent to stand trial, but enough to be a mitigating reason why she started the fire.
If the case had gone to trial, Siegel said, an investigative report on the fire would have been key evidence in defending Harper. The report concluded the firefighters who responded to the blaze failed to properly assess the fire’s dangers, reflecting a fire department in which personnel are “picking and choosing” which procedures to follow.
“I’m relieved it has come to an end, and so is she,” Siegel said.
Verzosa also said Dern and his family are glad the case is over. “They now have closure and can move on,” he said.