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Man gets probation for role in fire that closed parkway

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  • Man gets probation for role in fire that closed parkway

    Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/19/03
    By A. SCOTT FERGUSON
    TOMS RIVER BUREAU
    TOMS RIVER -- A Beachwood man was sentenced yesterday to three years' probation for his role in starting a fire that caused $1 million in property damage and closed a portion of the Garden State Parkway.

    Christopher Waters, 20, admitted last month that he brought a Duraflame log into Double Trouble State Park in Berkeley last June to start a campfire as part of a celebration for a friend's 17th birthday.

    When the campers left the next morning, the fire continued to smolder. The ensuing blaze destroyed some 1,300 acres of the Pinelands and prompted the evacuation of 500 homes.

    "I didn't want anything to happen," Waters said during the sentencing. At one point, he began crying so hard that his words were barely discernible. "I hate myself for what happened. I'm so sorry."

    State Superior Court Judge Edward J. Turnbach also sentenced Waters to five hours of community service during every Saturday of his probation. Waters must help in the maintenance and upkeep of firehouses throughout Ocean County.

    Waters, who pleaded guilty to criminal mischief, could have been sentenced to 364 days in the Ocean County Jail under the plea agreement.

    Waters was one of three people charged with causing the fire June 1, 2002. Last month, Turnbach sentenced Phillip J. Marshall, 19, of Beachwood to a similar probationary sentence for planning the campfire that night.

    Ryan Mehan of Beachwood, whose 17th birthday was being celebrated that night, pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and witness tampering in the Family Division of Superior Court and is serving a year's probation for taking part in the campfire.

    In all three cases, each admitted to being reckless for putting the woods in danger, but added that it was not their intention to start a forest fire. They did not have permission to start a campfire in the woods, which were under a drought watch at the time.

    Fifteen buildings, including a home on Grand Central Parkway in Berkeley, were destroyed, and 20 other homes were damaged. The fire was brought under control by some 350 firefighters June 3.

    Four firefighters suffered minor injuries. The blaze forced the closing of a 20-mile stretch of the Garden State Parkway, from Toms River to Little Egg Harbor, for 12 hours June 2. The closing caused weekend homebound visitors to the Shore to clog Route 9.

    Waters' attorney, Edward Plaza, asked the judge for a probationary sentence, noting that his client was sorry for what he did and has since changed his life.

    "They were there to have a celebration," Plaza told the judge. "They lit a campfire and were there to enjoy themselves with no intention of harming anyone. I believe he made a terrible mistake and I also believe that this is a person who is worth the court's mercy."

    Since the fire, Waters has obtained full-time employment as a cook and plans to enroll in a two-year automobile mechanic's program.

    In making his decision, Turnbach noted Waters' past arrests as a juvenile and adult, but added that the crime was not a deliberate act.

    After the hearing, Plaza said he was thankful to the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office and the judge for what he called the office's understanding that the fire was not intentional.

    "This is a person who made a mistake, and the sentence reflects that," Plaza said.
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