FOREST LAKE, Minn. (WCCO) — A Forest Lake firefighter will spend 76 days in jail starting on Monday, after pleading guilty to wildfire arson.
John David Berken, 42, pleaded guilty to the fire on April 6, 2009 that burned more than 1,500 acres in and around the Carlos Avery Wildfire Refuge, which is north of the Twin Cities.
He will spend 76 days in jail and pay $76,000 in restitution through a plea deal he accepted on Thursday. Under his plea deal, Berken doesn’t admit guilt but agrees there’s enough evidence to convict him.
According to the criminal complaint, witnesses say Berken set the fire in April by launching fireworks out of the passenger window of his car window. The witness called 911 and gave police the license plate number and a description of Berken.
Authorities traced the license plate to Berken and found fireworks in Berken’s home, plus residue on Berken’s car window and on his fire gloves.
Berken was arrested while helping to fight the blaze, which forced some people to evacuate their homes but didn’t destroy any buildings.
Before announcing his sentence, Judge Douglas Meslow told Berken how the crime endangered fellow firefighters.
The conviction prevents Berken from ever serving as a firefighter again.
“We felt 95 percent sure that we would win this case, but when you have a family you can’t risk five or 10 years in jail versus 76 days,” Berken said. “If I had done this I would agree with the chief, it would take away from the department’s honor, but I didn’t do this.”
Berken is a decorated firefighter who has been with the Forest Lake department since 2005. In 2006, he and three other firefighters were honored for rescuing a snowmobiler in the St. Croix River.
In 1991, records show he was convicted of calling the Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, adopting a Middle Eastern accent and threatening to blow it up.
In a separate incident, he allegedly contacted an airport traffic control tower and told controllers that the pilot of his aircraft had a heart attack and that he needed help landing the plane.
Investigators searched his apartment and found a radio transmitter and other equipment. He was sentenced in federal court to a year in prison for making false radio transmissions.
Court records also indicate Berken has several check-forgery and theft convictions and served about 20 months in prison in the mid-1990s.