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Deer hunter spared jail for starting Calif. fire

11/18/2005

SAN DIEGO — A deer hunter, after a tearful courtroom apology, was sentenced Thursday to five years probation for starting a wildfire that killed 15 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

"I wish I was dead instead," Sergio Martinez told a packed courtroom that included many victims of the blaze east of San Diego that charred 422 square miles — the largest wildfire in California history.

Martinez started the fire to attract attention after he became lost and disoriented on Oct. 25, 2003, in the Cleveland National Forest. He faced a maximum five years in prison, but the judge spared him jail time.

"God gave me a second chance," Martinez told reporters outside the courthouse.

Earlier, Martinez, a construction worker from West Covina, east of Los Angeles, cried as he expressed his remorse before U.S.
District Judge Roger T. Benitez.

"I would like to apologize to all the people who lost loved ones, family members, property and animals," he said. "I pray for you every day. I know they are in a better place with God. I wish I was dead instead."

Martinez, who pleaded guilty in March to starting the fire, thought he would die in the wilderness, and that's why he set the fire, his attorney, Ralph Rios, said in court papers.

Prosecutors contended that Martinez should have known conditions were ripe for a massive fire. They submitted a transcript of testimony by Martinez's hunting partner, Ronald Adkins, who said Santa Ana winds were picking up that day.

Martinez became separated from his friend while walking back to their truck for lunch, according to court papers. Adkins and two other hunters searched for Martinez before alerting authorities.

Shortly before dark, a San Diego County sheriff's helicopter found Martinez near the edge of a swiftly growing fire. Sheriff's deputies said Martinez initially denied starting the fire, but as they flew away he repeatedly apologized.

At one point, he looked at the fire and said, "I'm sorry, I had to." He said he had tried to put out the fire with his hat, which was singed.