A man accused of launching a military flare that sparked a $50 million blaze and forced the temporary evacuation of thousands of residents pleaded guilty Tuesday to a felony charge of endangering public safety.
Kurtis J. Popp, 25, of Milwaukee was initially charged with second-degree reckless endangerment. But prosecutors amended the charge to being party to the crime, which doesn't change the maximum penalty but makes it easier to prove guilt.
In exchange for Popp's guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of up to a year in jail, three years probation and community service. They would also recommend a prison sentence be imposed and stayed, meaning Popp would only serve the prison time if he violated the terms of his probation.
Popp's attorney, Julius Kim, said he was satisfied the agreement was fair.
"It takes into account the need to punish Kurt for what happened here," Kim said, "but I think it gives him the opportunity to give back to the community because community service is part of this deal."
Popp faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 26.
His brother, 23-year-old Joshua J. Popp of Milwaukee, already pleaded guilty to second-degree reckless endangerment in a similar agreement. He will be sentenced Oct. 8.
According to prosecutors, Joshua Popp acquired the flare about two years ago when he was in the U.S. Marine Corps and gave it to his brother, who fired it in the air July 5.
Neither man saw where the flare landed, and neither came forward even after investigators disclosed that a military flare had caused the fire, the complaint said.
A Patrick Cudahy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Assistant district attorney Kent Lovern said he was satisfied with the plea agreements in both cases, noting that even though both brothers may avoid prison time, they have felony convictions and recommendations for jail time.
"I think our recommendation satisfies the competing concerns in this case," he said.
Kim said he would ask the judge for leniency. Kurtis Popp may have fired the flare, Kim said, but he deserved a lighter sentence than his brother because he didn't understand just how powerful the flare was, he said.
"When you're trying to figure out what's fair in this situation you have to examine a person's mental state," he said. "Kurtis' involvement was different and his mental awareness of what was happening wasn't the same as Josh."
Kurtis Popp declined to talk to reporters after the hearing but would make a statement at sentencing, Kim said.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.
(This version CORRECTS the court date to Tuesday instead of Monday.)
Source: AP News