A former firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was sentenced to five years in prison after admitting that he set a series of wildfires because he wanted to impress others, earn more overtime pay and relieve boredom, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Benjamin Cunha, 33, of Placerville pleaded guilty in Sacramento on Tuesday to a charge of felony arsony. He must pay $246,862 in restitution and surrender to federal prison authorities by July 18, according to U.S. District Court documents.
"As he admitted in his plea agreement, this defendant set a multitude of fires with a callous disregard for the danger to life and property that he was inflicting," U.S. Atty. Benjamin B. Wagner said in a statement.
Cunha was a seasonal firefighter who turned to arson during the summers of 2006 and 2007 in Amador and El Dorado counties, according to prosecutors.
According to court documents, by setting fires that he would then presumably help put out, Cunha hoped to impress his fellow firefighters with his skills, accrue overtime pay and overcome boredom.
The fires scorched both state and federal lands, and in 2008 Cunha pleaded guilty to state charges and was sentenced to a year in jail.
After his release from custody, Cunha was identified as the prime suspect in two 2013 fires that erupted in the same counties. At least one of the fires was started with a time-delay device, the same tool Cunha admitted to using in starting the more than two dozen wildfires years earlier, according to court documents.
The charge that Cunha pleaded guilty to on Tuesday did not involve those 2013 fires, however.
Prosecutors said they feared that even more fires could be set while they investigated the 2013 wildfires, so they chose to charge him with the two 2007 federal land fires. Cunha had already admitted to starting those fires in a 2008 videotaped interview, according to court documents.
"Cunha had no consideration for Cal Fire fighters' safety when he set the fires, placing them in grave danger during the fire suppression efforts," said agent Jill A. Snyder of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In his videotaped interview with law enforcement, Cunha admitted to developing the time-delay device using his knowledge as a firefighter, according to court documents.
Cunha's goal was to "create fires big enough that significant firefighting resources would be required to extinguish the fires," the court papers said.
In sentencing documents, prosecutors asked that Cunha be sent to prison for more than five years, arguing that "there is a high need to protect the community."
In a letter to federal Judge John Mendez, his parents, Edward and Kathy Cunha, asked the judge to consider their son's years of community involvement and his past conviction when sentencing him.
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