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California

Couple, facing huge losses in the Camp fire, get separate pardons from Gov. Brown

Jason James, Heather Burnett
Gov. Jerry Brown issued separate pardons this year for Heather Steels Burnett, left, and her husband, Jason James Burnett. They are pictured with their daughter, Faith.
(Burnett family)

Heather Steels Burnett doesn’t remember the name of the official-sounding man who called from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office. Only that his message brought tears to her eyes.

The day before Christmas, the Chico resident received a full and unconditional pardon from California’s governor, erasing a 20-year-old drug offense from another, very different chapter in her life.

The pardon, one of 143 issued by Brown this week, comes at a time of upheaval for Burnett. She and her family lost their two-bedroom home in the Camp fire, rescuing only some paperwork, a 17-year-old SUV and Glamor, their English mastiff.

Yet what made the governor’s announcement especially moving is that only a month ago, he pardoned Burnett’s husband, who waged his own difficult fight to rebuild his life.

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Like Heather, Jason James Burnett has battled addiction. Like his wife, he had a felony drug conviction in his past.

In the two pardon statements, issued five weeks apart, Brown concluded that the Burnetts have shown “good moral character” in the decades since being incarcerated.

“To get recognized for that — it’s a great feeling,” said Jason, 44.

“It couldn’t come at a better time,” said Heather, 49.

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Pardons may be issued to those who are living productive lives and have demonstrated “exemplary behavior” after their conviction, according to Brown’s office. Of the two Burnetts, Jason had the more difficult road.

Heather, the daughter of a college professor and single mom, described herself as “the unassuming good kid gone terribly wrong.” She started drinking and dropped out of college after a year, becoming a drug addict not long after that.

Heather quit using in 1998, on the day of her arrest for possession of ephedrine with the intention of making meth. “That was enough for me. I was done,” she said.

Jason says both his parents were addicts — and that he last saw his father when he was 8. He was first arrested at 18 for manufacturing a controlled substance, a felony, and sentenced in 1994.

After seven years in and out of prison, Jason decided he wanted a different life. He entered a treatment facility and eventually met Heather Steels, who had spent a year in jail along with four years’ probation.

The two moved in together in 2001 and were married a year later. They had a daughter, Faith, in 2004.

Jason opened a roofing company in 2010 and, over the years, has tried to hire people who were previously incarcerated themselves. Heather has spent 14 years as a substance abuse counselor, most recently in Butte County, offering strategies to help people treat their addictions.

In December 2017, the couple decided to apply for pardons from the governor. Making the requests together seemed fitting, Heather said.

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Then last month, disaster struck.

On Nov. 8, Heather was dropping her daughter off at school when she saw the smoke from the rapidly growing Camp fire. She drove to her two-bedroom home and retrieved critical paperwork: birth certificates, homeowners insurance, the deed to the house.

Heather struggled to load Glamor, who weighs 210 pounds, into her Ford Expedition. With embers flying and the fuel tank showing empty, she crawled out of the town. “It was like driving through a tunnel of flame,” she said.

Heather knew when she left that the home would not survive the fire, and it didn’t. In the aftermath, Jason lived in a trailer while she and her daughter stayed with her mom.

When Jason’s pardon came, on the day before Thanksgiving, it was a morale boost. In his statement, Brown said Jason had lived an “honest and upright life” since his release — and had earned an unconditional pardon.

“It was giving us a little bit of hope,” Heather said, “and kind of a reminder of how far we’ve come.”

In the weeks since the fire, the Burnetts have been among the lucky ones. They put an offer on a house in Chico and had it accepted, with escrow closing last week. They have moved in a couch, two beds, a television and little else.

The couple have not decided what to do with their burned-out property in Paradise. Yet Heather sounds optimistic about the path ahead.

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“We can build again,” she said. “And it’s much easier this time, because we know how to do it.”

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidZahniser


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