By Tom Olsen
Duluth News Tribune
DULUTH, Minn. — From 2010 to 2012, there were 39 suspicious fires in the Babbitt area, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dunne told a judge Thursday.
In December 2012, authorities began investigating Babbitt Fire Chief Ryan Scharber, who promptly resigned his position. Since that time, Dunne said, there has not been a single suspected arson fire.
“He was a fire chief who set fires in a community he was sworn to protect,” Dunne said at Scharber’s sentencing hearing. “I can’t think of a more egregious offense by a public servant.”
U.S. District Judge John Tunheim followed the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation, ordering Scharber to serve five years in prison for setting numerous fires in the Superior National Forest.
Dozens of spectators, including Scharber’s friends and family and area law enforcement officials who investigated the fires, filled a Duluth courtroom to hear the sentence.
In entering a guilty plea to two of three charges in November, Scharber admitted to setting nine grass fires and attempting to set fire to a resort over a 13-month period in 2011 and 2012.
On Thursday, Scharber asked the judge to grant him leniency for the sake of his wife and children. He again apologized for setting the fires and said he voluntarily sought mental health treatment.
“I’m not the evil pyromaniac I’ve been made out to be,” he said. “It’s made for great news, but most of what the prosecutor has said and the media has reported is untrue.”
Scharber said he has suffered from a short-term adjustment disorder that led him to set the fires. Had he worked in any other field, it probably would have manifested itself in some other way, he said.
“I’m not a pyromaniac,” he said. “I’ve taught my young children to respect fire as a tool, not as a toy.”
Dunne told Tunheim that he sees Scharber as a good person who made bad decisions.
He noted that Scharber is different from most criminal defendants in that he doesn’t have a track history of substance abuse or mental illness. “That’s the confounding aspect of this case,” he said.
But Dunne said Scharber must be held to a high standard due to his position in the community. The case will serve as a warning to potential arsonists, something that has already been seen with the sudden drop in suspicious fires, he said.
“I believe in the deterrent value of prosecution,” Dunne said. “People who want to set fires are going to know that they’re going to be caught, prosecuted and sent to prison.”
Dunne asked the judge for a five-year sentence, which he said is the minimum required by federal law.
Defense attorney Joe Tamburino sought a below-guideline sentence and argued that the statute does not apply in the case. He said a sentence in the range of one to two years would be appropriate because Scharber did not act with “malicious intent” — in other words, the intent to harm anyone.
Tamburino noted that the grass fires burned only about three acres of land in a rural area, and the attempted resort fire happened at a building that was closed for the winter.
“Mr. Scharber pled guilty because he was guilty of the charges, but that doesn’t mean he was guilty of malice,” Tamburino said. “We don’t know why he (set the fires), but we know that it was not with intent to hurt anyone.”
He called the law that requires a five-year sentence a “cookie cutter” solution to sentencing guidelines and asked the judge to issue a departure.
But Tunheim said the law was clear on the matter and imposed the five-year sentence. Tunheim made it clear that he does not support mandatory minimums, but said he would not comment on whether he believed Scharber’s punishment was fair.
“After consideration of all aspects, this court does not have the discretion to avoid the mandatory minimum in this case,” Tunheim told Scharber and Tamburino.
After the hearing, Tamburino said he intends to appeal the sentencing, which must be done within two weeks.
Tamburino noted that Scharber’s sentence probably would have been significantly lighter had the case been charged in State District Court. The maximum sentence there, Tamburino said, would be two years.
“Because we’re in this building here, dealing with laws in Washington, we’re looking at a five-year mandatory minimum,” Tamburino said, noting the federal building’s proximity to the county courthouse. “There’s what, 50 feet, between these buildings? But it’s night and day.”
The case was ultimately charged in federal court because the location of the attempted structure fire, at Mattila’s Birch Lake Resort, fell within a federal course of commerce.
In addition to the prison term, Tunheim ordered Scharber to pay nearly $28,000 to the U.S. Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and city of Babbitt for firefighting expenses related to the fires.
Scharber requested that he be able to serve his time at the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth. Tunheim said he would recommend that to the Bureau of Prisons, agreeing that it would be beneficial for him to remain near his family.
Scharber will turn himself in to begin serving the term on June 2.
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