Volunteer firefighter pleads guilty to church arson — (North Forty News)

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North Forty News

By JoAn Bjarko

Feb 20, 2004

A 20-year-old former Livermore volunteer firefighter on Feb. 20 pleaded guilty to first-degree arson, admitting to starting the fire that destroyed the historic Virginia Dale Community Church on U.S. Highway 287.

Austin Gene Mayo, who has been in custody at the Larimer County Detention Center since his arrest on Nov. 26, could face up to 24 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to one felony that combines four Livermore area fires into a single charge. He will be sentenced by District Court Judge Jolene Blair on April 2 at 1:30 p.m. at the Justice Center Fort Collins. The district attorney will also seek $75,756 in restitution. “His true sentencing is with God,” fourth-generation church member Dana Moen-Wright told news media after hearing the guilty plea.The 1880s church was completely destroyed by fire shortly after midnight on Nov. 16.

With the help of community donations and volunteers, the church is being rebuilt to look as it did before the fire. Moen-Wright noted, however, that it will never feel the same. She added that she is not angry with Mayo. “The worst damage is what he has done to himself and his family,” she said.Defense attorney Linda Miller said the sentencing hearing will reveal more about Mayo and why he started the fires. Miller said that prior to the fires, Mayo had been diagnosed with depression. He had been taking medication but stopped, she said. The mental and emotional issues are far more complex than saying Mayo was a thrill seeker or wanted to be a hero, she said.”He fully acknowledges he made bad and criminal decisions,” Miller said. “… It’s very clear he was not thinking clearly.”In addition to the church fire, Mayo admitted to starting a haystack fire on Nov. 10 that burned 150 tons of hay, a grass fire on Nov. 11 that burned 2.5 acres and an attempted fire at the Livermore Community Hall on Nov. 18.

Mayo responded with the Livermore Volunteer Fire Department to fight the first three fires last November. The community hall fire was extinguished before firefighters arrived. If the judge approves the restitution request, $60,000 will go to the church; $14,000 will go to George Seidel, who owned the hay; and $1,756 will go to the Livermore Fire Protection District. The state’s mandatory sentence for the felony that Mayo is admitting to is four to 12 years if there are not aggravating circumstances. Deputy district attorney Leah Bishop will contend at the sentencing hearing, however, that aggravating circumstances apply to the offenses and that Mayo should be sentenced to prison for up to 24 years. Five years of mandatory parole after release from prison also applies to this felony.Judge Blair dismissed the three other arson counts originally filed against Mayo, but those fires are included in the amended felony charge.