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Man Pleads Guilty in Massive Ariz. Blaze

October 20, 2003

PHOENIX (AP) _ A part-time firefighter accused of trying to make work for himself by starting what became the biggest wildfire in Arizona history pleaded guilty Monday.

The fire Leonard Gregg started last year combined with another to form the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, which destroyed hundreds of homes and forced 30,000 people to evacuate as it burned 469,000 acres of private, Forest Service and Fort Apache Reservation land.

Gregg, who also was charged with starting a smaller fire, pleaded guilty to two federal counts of intentionally setting a fire. He could get up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced in January.

Deborah Euler-Ajayi, Gregg’s attorney, said Gregg had wanted to plead guilty for some time, but she wanted to be sure he was mentally competent to make that decision. He had spent about six months at a mental health facility in North Carolina.

``He wanted to get it over with, get this behind him, serve his time and make his public apologies,″ she said.

Gregg, 31, is from the Apache the reservation community of Cibecue. Prosecutors said he started the Rodeo fire to earn $8 an hour fighting it. He also has said his parents’ alcoholism fueled a rage that led him to start the blaze.

Euler-Ajayi had previously argued that Gregg was not mentally competent to stand trial, saying he suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.

Federal prosecutor Vincent Kirby said it was clear from the beginning that Gregg knew what he had done. He said Gregg tried to apologize shortly after his arrest but a federal magistrate cut him off.

The other half of the Rodeo-Chediski fire was set by a woman who was trying to signal a helicopter after she became lost in the wilderness. Federal prosecutors declined to charge her.

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