The woman suspected of starting a house fire that severely injured Fresno Fire Department Capt. Pete Dern pleaded no contest to arson Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court – a crime that made national news when a bystander’s video showed Dern falling through a burning roof and the desperate scramble by fellow firefighters to rescue him in March last year.
Wearing shackles and a green jail jumpsuit, Julia Beth Ann Harper, 53, also admitted her actions caused great bodily injury to Dern, who spent six months in the burn unit at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno.
She faces nine years in prison when she is sentenced May 4.
In accepting the plea, Judge Don Penner told Harper the arson plea constitutes a strike under the three-strikes repeat offender law. Harper also must register as an arsonist with local law enforcement once she gets out of prison.
Harper agreed to the no-contest plea because, if convicted in a trial, she faced up to 14 years in prison, said her lawyer, Mark Siegel. As part of the plea, she waived her rights to appeal.
An earlier effort to reach a plea deal for Harper was derailed in February, when Penner rejected the seven-year prison term previously agreed to by the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and Harper’s counsel. Penner didn’t give a specific reason for the decision, but noted the severity of Dern’s injuries and his status as a firefighter.
Siegel said he was told the initial plea deal also 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.
In court Wednesday, prosecutor Dennis Verzosa told the judge that Dern and his family, as well as Fresno Fire Department officials, were consulted about the latest plea agreement. Penner, however, told Harper he was not yet bound by the plea agreement. The judge said if the deal is too severe or lenient, he could reject it at her sentencing.
Dern, 50, fell through the garage roof while battling a blaze on March 29, 2015, at the house on Cortland Avenue in a neighborhood west of Manchester Center.
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 several surgeries and spending 164 days in the Leon S. Peters Burn Center at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, Dern went home in September, but has not returned to work. A fire official said Wednesday that Dern recently had another surgery.
Dern has not attended any of Harper’s court hearings. It is unknown whether he will attend her sentencing.
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.” But it’s unclear why she started it. Siegel wouldn’t say Wednesday other than Harper’s mental state would have been explored if she had gone to trial.
An investigative report on the fire 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.
If the case has gone to trial, the report also would have played a role in defending Harper, Siegel said.
Harper has been in the Fresno County Jail since her arrest April 22. In reaching the plea agreement, Verzosa, a deputy district attorney, said in a news release that “after a review of the entire investigation, and after careful consultation with firefighter Peter Dern and his family, the Fresno Fire Department, and the investigating officers, we feel that this is an appropriate and fair resolution to this case. With this plea agreement, firefighter Dern can now attempt to put this horrific incident behind him and focus completely on his recovery.”