Port Angeles man sentenced in high school roof fire

PORT ANGELES — A 19-year-old man whose firecracker sparked a roof fire on the Port Angeles High School campus Nov. 3 was penalized with a suspended jail sentence after coming clean about his actions, but he faces substantial restitution costs.

Under a plea agreement reached in Clallam County Superior Court, Triton A. Edwards pleaded guilty Tuesday of second-degree reckless burning, a gross misdemeanor, after initially being charged with first-degree reckless burning, a felony.

The plea to the lesser offense will allow the Port Angeles-area resident to pursue his goal of joining the military, which a felony record would have made far more difficult, his lawyer, John Black, told Judge Lauren Erickson.

“He is accountable,” Black said.

“He has stepped up to the plate on this charge.

“He’s got a big future ahead of him in the military.”

First-degree reckless burning occurs when a person actually causes damage “by knowingly causing a fire or explosion,” according to the Revised Code of Washington.

Second-degree reckless burning occurs when the fire or explosion places a building or other property “in danger of destruction or damage.”

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Matthew Roberson said Edwards made the plea agreement possible by owning up to the crime and cooperating with authorities.

The Port Angeles High School graduate has been assisting police in their ongoing investigation of what occurred about 2:30 a.m. Nov. 3, when Edwards threw a mortar firework in the air. It landed on the 1,800-square-foot roof of the high school automotive instruction building.

Deputy Police Chief Jason Viada said Wednesday there remain multiple suspects in the case.

“Determining what their involvement was and holding them accountable for their actions has been a part of the case from very early on,” he said.

“I am optimistic that we will be notifying the community of other milestones that will be crossed in this case in the near future.”

Interior damage and injuries were avoided: No one was in the building, and the fire was called in by a Peninsula Daily News delivery person in time for first responders to quell the flames.

“There are a lot of mercies in that, but I don’t think the consequences of his actions will be lost on him,” Roberson said.

The flames caused damages that could exceed $75,000, although a precise total won’t be known until after the beginning of December, school district spokeswoman Jennifer Sperline said Tuesday.

Roberson left open the possibility the district could file a civil claim against Edwards, but Sperline said that won’t be happening.

“The District will be seeking restitution pursuant to Mr. Edwards’ plea agreement,” she said in an email.

In agreeing to Roberson’s and Black’s plea recommendation, Erickson sentenced Edwards to 364 days in jail with 354 days suspended for 24 months.

Erickson gave him credit for one day in jail and converted nine days to 72 hours of community service.

Edwards was made responsible for paying restitution to the school district for the damages and to the city of Port Angeles to cover the Port Angeles Police Department’s fire suppression costs.

“So far, the school district will have to pay several thousand dollars in deductible, and insurance will cover the rest,” Roberson said.

Edwards could face further court action if the school district presses civil charges.

“There will be other consequences of this case that I see other than just a criminal case,” Roberson said.

Whoever else is charged and found guilty in the case also may be financially liable, he said.

Restitution will be determined within 180 days.

Edwards did not make a statement in court, admitting what he did in his written guilty plea.

“I lit a firework and threw it up into the air and it landed on the school building roof, which placed the building in danger of destruction in Clallam County, WA,” it said.

The night of the fire, Edwards was with four other people. According to a surveillance video, one person appeared to light a firework and toss it in the air, causing no harm, before the group moved away from that spot, and Edwards threw his.

“This is a case where we have a situation where the defendant and some friends were really engaging in what I don’t think anybody would characterize as less than, frankly, stupid behavior,” Roberson said.

Roberson said Edwards immediately told police he threw a mortar firework and later, on his own, gave further information on what happened that night.

“Without that assistance, it would take a lot longer for the Port Angeles Police Department to go about that investigation,” Roberson said.

Roberson consulted with school district and police department officials on the plea deal.

“I think everyone is on the same page, that one rather foolish and stupid decision shouldn’t ruin an individual’s life, especially when he comes back, takes responsibility and really earns a reduction in charges, which is essentially what he did.”

Edwards declined the opportunity to make a statement in court.

The former Roughriders football player does not have a full-time job and lives with his parents, he told Erickson.

The judge assessed a $500 crime victim assessment fee and banned him from setting foot on school district property unless he has “legitimate business” during normal school district hours.

Edwards must pay at least $50 a month for court costs and restitution.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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