A federal judge in Phoenix sentenced a former U.S. Forest Service fire management officer to 24 months in prison Monday for starting a blaze without authorization.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul Rosenblatt rejected the contention of Van Bateman that he simply “cleaned up a little timber.”
Bateman was commander of an elite wildfire team and led the fire team that battled the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, the largest in Arizona’s recorded history.
“My intent and desires have always been to protect the national forest as best I could,” Bateman told the judge.
But Rosenblatt said Bateman was wrong.
“You simply were doing what you wanted to do rather that what should have been done,” the judge told the 34-year veteran of the Forest Service, who admitted setting the Boondock Fire three years ago about 45 miles south of Flagstaff.
The judge also was not impressed by more than 50 letters from others — many former Forest Service employees — who wrote that they had done the same thing.
In fact, the judge suggested those letters were one reason he rejected a plea by Grant Woods to place his client on probation.
“That’s kind of chilling,” Rosenblatt said of the letters. “Too much paperwork simply doesn’t cut it.”
Bateman also will have to pay a $5,000 fine and $10,390 in restitution to the Forest Service. Once released, he will be on supervised probation for another three years and will have to undergo a psychological exam.
The two-year sentence was the maximum Rosenblatt could impose under the terms of a plea deal.
As part of that deal, prosecutors dropped a second charge of burning timber without authorization connected with the Mother Fire in 2004. And they dismissed more serious arson charges in connection with both incidents.
The judge rejected a recommendation from a probation officer that he reject the plea deal and send Bateman away for at least 46 months.
“I’ve never felt that I did anything wrong,” Bateman said after the sentencing. He will be free for the next 45 days before he has to report for incarceration.
“I’ve never claimed to be lily white,” he continued. “The only thing I’m guilty of is not getting the proper authorization to do what I did.”
But Bob Schinzel, who had been the assistant special agent in charge of the Department of Agriculture in Phoenix — the agency which includes the Forest Service — said evidence showed otherwise.
Schinzel said once there was suspicion Bateman was setting fires he was tracked through a satellite positioning system in his computer. Schinzel said Bateman was tracked to the scene of several blazes.
Schinzel said Bateman fled quickly after starting the fires, which is out of the ordinary when setting a prescribed burn.
And prosecutor Kim Hare told the judge that Bateman, in an earlier statement, never mentioned “prescribed burns.”
“He never thought he’d get caught,” she said. “He didn’t have a good excuse at the time why he set them.
“Now he does.”
She said Bateman’s excuse, even if true, should not allow him to escape prison.
“I believe that the defendant’s ego got the better of him,” she told the judge.
Woods argued that his client was acting in the best interests of the forest and cited the letters from other veteran Forest Service employees.
“When they see a situation that’s dangerous to the forest, they take care of it,” he said. “They’re not criminals.”
At worst, Woods said, his client is “a bit of a cowboy.”
In a written statement to the court, Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell said claims that agency workers commonly set fires without authorization “are untrue and do not reflect reality.”
“These claims impugn the integrity of our nation’s professional wildland firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect people, their communities and our natural resources,” she said in the statement.