A 70-year-old Squaw Valley man who told authorities he lit a string of wildland fires in east Fresno County for “no reason” was sentenced Wednesday to 18 years in prison.
Michael Wayne Hamilton Sr. was initially charged with 30 counts of arson for setting fires over a three year period that started in May 2012 and ended with his arrest in May 2015. But in a plea agreement in August this year, he pleaded no contest to 10 felony arson charges.
Prosecutors wanted Hamilton to do 32 years in prison after Cal Fire Assistant Chief Eric Watkins told Superior Court Judge Don Penner that the fires put firefighters, residents and several foothills communities in danger.
We believe he has set more than 30 fires.
Cal Fire Assistant Chief Eric Watkins
Watkins said he wanted Hamilton to spend the rest of his life in prison because he feared that once Hamilton is released he would continue to set fires.
“We believe he has set more than 30 fires,” Watkins told the judge.
But Penner said he sentenced Hamilton to 18 years in prison because he accepted responsibility for his crimes. The judge also noted that Hamilton has an 11th grade education, an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1965 and suffers from anxiety and diabetes.
“He told probation he was sorry that it happened and that there was no reason for it,” Penner said. “He also said he didn’t set out to hurt anyone and that he was intoxicated, but aware of what he was doing.”
Penner, however, said Hamilton’s “planning and sophistication in setting the fires” outweighed any mitigating circumstances.
Hamilton was arrested May 11, 2015, at George Smith Road and Highway 180 in Squaw Valley after a witness saw him set a fire and got his license plate, Watkins said.
He told probation he was sorry that it happened and that there was no reason for it.
Judge Don Penner
The fires occurred near Sanger, Reedley, Squaw Valley and Dunlap, Watkins said. Most of the fires were around an acre, but one torched more than 60 acres, a Cal Fire news release said. Twelve of the 30 fires happened during a spree from May 4, 2015, to May 11, 2015.
Watkins said Hamilton also was suspect in arson fires in Plumas County in 2006 and 2007, but was never charged.
Penner said Hamilton will have to register with law enforcement as an arsonist for life so authorities can keep tabs on him. Penner also said Hamilton could be eligible for parole after six years in prison under Proposition 57, which California voters approved in November 2016. The proposition allows early parole consideration for nonviolent felons.
“For the sheer number of fires and risk to the public, he should not be released early,” Penner said. “I think 18 years is a fair sentence and he should serve all of that.”