Sean Newman, 43, of Dietrich, no longer faces a felony charge of arson in the third-degree and instead will likely plead guilty to misdemeanor firing timber or prairie lands after the prosecuting attorney filed an amended complaint on May 8. Newman was charged with starting a fire that burned about three-fourths of an acre at Lions Park in Hailey, adjacent to the Draper Wood River Preserve, on the Fourth of July last year.
The felony charge meant that Newman faced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000, but under the amended charge he could be sentenced to a maximum of six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine. A jury trial on the original charge was scheduled to start yesterday, but the amended complaint filed a week ago means the case will return to Magistrate Court, where Newman is expected to plead guilty and be sentenced on June 18.
According to a probable-cause affidavit written by Blaine County Sheriff’s Deputy Joshua Pritchard, Newman was established as a suspect after multiple witnesses at the park said they saw him walking down the trail to the bridge and say to a female he was walking with, “Watch this” and proceed to use his lighter to light the cottonwood seed duff on the trail edge on fire. When taken into custody, Newman initially denied he had started the fire.
Newman told officers at the Hailey Police Department that he was on the trail going to Bowe Bridge when he saw a boy drop something on the cottonwood seed and start the fire.
“Newman stated he was helping to put the fire out when people began pointing at him saying he started the fire,” the affidavit states.
Later, Newman ad-mitted to starting the fire with his lighter but said he had not planned to start any fires before arriving at the park.
“Newman stated it was a spontaneous thought as he walked down the trail,” the affidavit states. Newman said he knew the cotton would burn very fast but believed it would be an isolated burn and “it would not rapidly advance as it did.”
On the day of the fire, the Wood River Land Trust’s RiverFest was going on at the park with hundreds of people enjoying live music, activities and food. As firefighters, the Hailey Police Department and the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office responded to the fire, hundreds were evacuated from the park, though the festivities carried on, and live bands continued to play through the smoky haze.