RAPID CITY (AP) — The woman who started the largest forest fire in the recorded history of the Black Hills was sentenced in state court on Wednesday to 25 years in prison after the prosecutor said she lied during polygraph questions about an earlier fire that destroyed 15 homes.
Janice Stevenson, 47, of Newcastle, Wyo., had pleaded guilty May 8 in federal court to destruction of U.S. government property during last year's Jasper Fire, and she was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison.
She pleaded guilty May 25 in state court to second-degree arson for the destruction of a summer home lost in the blaze. In a plea agreement, Stevenson promised to tell the truth about other suspicious fires that took place before 1993.
As part of the deal, state prosecutors agreed to recommend that her state sentence be served at the same time as her federal sentence and that she be given 17.5 years. That would make her eligible for state parole in roughly 8.5 years, or close to the time she would be done with her federal sentence.
But Paul Bachand, assistant attorney general, said Wednesday he could no longer honor the agreement because she lied during questioning about the 1988 Westbury Trails Fire on the western outskirts of Rapid City. He instead asked that Stevenson's state sentence be concurrent with the federal prison term.
Taking somewhat of a middle ground, Circuit Judge Merton Tice ordered that Stevenson's state sentence run at the same time as the federal sentence but that she serve 25 years in state prison. Although that is 15 years longer than the federal sentence, roughly half the extra time will be lopped off under the present state parole system.
Stevenson stopped along Highway 16, west of Custer, on Aug. 24, 2000, to urinate, lit a cigarette and dropped a match onto a carpet of dry grass and pine needles. The resulting Jasper Fire blackened 130 square miles of the Black Hills National Forest, cost $9 million to fight and racked up an estimated $42 million in damages.
Stevenson, who was brought into the courtroom Wednesday in jail garb with her hands fastened to a chain around her waist, said she dropped the match just to see the fire burn.
”I don't really know why I did it,” she told the judge. ”I am very sorry.”
She also admitted setting three earlier fires in Wyoming — burning a barn, a pasture and a lodge. Stevenson said she had been drinking at the time she set all the fires, including the Jasper blaze.
Trevor Jones, a special agent for the state Division of Criminal Investigation, said during lie detector testing, Stevenson denied setting the Westbury Trails Fire, but the machine indicated she was lying.
”She failed the question involving the Westbury Trails Fire,” Jones said.
”Was it a close call?” Bachand asked. ”No,” Jones replied.
The assistant attorney general said Stevenson is dangerous and should be locked up for a long time.
”She's a fire bug. She likes to start fires,” Bachand said. ”The longer she stays in prison, the safer society is.”
Stevenson's attorney, Randal Connelly, accused the state of violating the plea agreement. His client did not set the Westbury Trails Fire, and he advised her to deny it on the polygraph test, Connelly said.
The investigative report on the fire indicated that a Sturgis woman, who has since died, was the prime suspect, the defense attorney said.
Connelly said Stevenson was sexually abused from an early age and was impregnated at age 8 by her father. She has an extensive history of mental problems, and such people fare poorly on lie-detector tests, Connelly said. He said she also had failed an earlier polygraph exam and had attempted suicide more than 30 times.
Jones agreed that people with mental problems are not good subjects for polygraph examinations because their answers are muddled and not easily judged to be truthful or false. However, he insisted that Stevenson's clearly lied when asked if she set the Westbury Trails Fire, which forced hundreds of people to flee from their homes.
Wednesday's sentencing also included testimony from two Black Hills National Forest neighbors who lost homes in the Jasper fire.
A teary-eyed Sharon Kayser said a summer home that she and her husband, Jon, were about to move into was destroyed by the blaze, which charred their 23 acres of land.
”We lost trees and the beauty of the hills that will never be there again,” Mrs. Kayser said. ”We'll never see the trees again in our lifetime.”
Jon Kayser said the fire destroyed much of the natural beauty in that part of the Black Hills.
”There's no sentence severe enough for the devastation she caused … what she did to the landscape. It's ruined for 200 years,”' he said to a reporter.
Lynn Akam, who has a summer home with her husband, Everett, about a half mile from the Kaysers, said they lost a cabin that was used as a study, and also lost a tractor and a storage shed in the Jasper fire. And she said their nearby home was also severely damaged.
”We're still in shock,” she said. ”It looks like ground zero. It's just totally destroyed the beauty of the forest.”
The Jasper Fire burned nearly 84,000 acres and came within 9 miles of Custer, 11 miles of Hills City and 9.5 miles of Newcastle. After 16 days, it was corralled on Sept. 8 and finally extinguished Sept. 25.
Stevenson was arrested four days later.
In sentencing the woman, Tice also ordered her to pay for the damages she caused, although acknowledging it is impossible.
”I doubt very much you'll come up with $42 million,” Tice said. ”It was only by the grace of God that somebody wasn't killed.”
At its peak, the fire was burning 100 acres a minute.