A 35-year-old Colorado man, who exploited the Badger Creek Fire to burglarize evacuated homes in the area of Woods Landing and Jelm Mountain, was sentenced to 5-8 years imprisonment this week.
Albany County district court Judge Tori Kricken is also recommending that the defendant, Jayce Peterson, receive intensive drug treatment while in prison.
Peterson had taken an “open plea” in May, meaning the plea deal gave no direction for a sentence from prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Kricken ultimately went along with the recommendation made by prosecutor Benjamin Harwich, who suggested 5-8 years for Peterson’s guilty pleas for burglary, “accessory before the fact — burglary,” and theft.
A former firefighter himself, Peterson broke into two houses and one business during 2018’s Badger Creek fire to steal property to fuel his methamphetamine addiction.
Subdivisions at Woods Landing and Jelm Mountain were evacuated between June 11-18 amid the forest fire.
“Some conduct is so egregious that simple abstinence (from drugs) cannot cure it,” Kricken said. “That conduct shook this Albany County community to it’s very core.”
Harwich said that Peterson’s crime was significantly egregious because, while most burglaries are “opportunistic,” Peterson’s was “significantly premeditated.”
“He came to Wyoming with the specific purpose of committing these crimes,” Harwich said.
Kricken also acknowledged, however, that’s Peterson’s case was “a very complex situation.”
“Making a terrible decision does not make you a terrible person, and I think we have a little bit of that at play here,” she said.
When addressing the judge and the victims, Peterson cried as he explained his remorse.
“I allowed drugs and alcohol to take control of my life and become a person I didn’t recognize, but that time also saved my life,” Peterson said.
Before the sentencing hearing, Peterson’s brother — Corey — sent a letter to Kricken, pleading for mercy.
“I know it isn’t any excuse, but he was in a drug-addicted state during these crimes,” the brother wrote. “If you had asked me one year ago, I would have said that jail is the best place for him. However, I have witnessed first-hand the amazing transformation he has made.”
Peterson’s boss also wrote a letter to Kricken, praising his employee. While being held in the Albany County jail, Peterson got sober and, since his release, had been working as a foreman for a Steamboat Springs, Colorado, contracting company.
He also been participating in a Christian-based 12-step program, Regeneration Recovery, in Steamboat Springs.
“I have watched my son struggle with addiction his entire life,” Peterson’s mother, Bonnie Espinoza, said. “The worst was the summer and fall of 2018 when drugs took over his mind. … He finally hit rock bottom and asked God to save him, and God has saved him. It’s the kind of thing I prayed for my entire life. … He’s a borderline workaholic now, but it’s good for him because it helps keep him clean and sober.”
Peterson was released on bond in October, and during his May hearing, Kricken suggested at the time she consider giving Peterson probation if he didn’t slip up.
“Keep in mind that how you’re doing now will be a pretty good indication of how you’d do on something like probation,” Kricken said.
But two of Peterson’s victims spoke before sentencing Wednesday and urged for prison time.
Chad Koske, who lives near Jelm Mountain, owns one of the houses that was burglarized and told Kricken that the experience had a harrowing effect on his family, creating stress and fear that continues to this day.
“It’s really hard to sit down with my wife and daughter and tell them it’s OK,” he said. “It’s not OK. We have been violated.”
Koske said Peterson had searched through every part of their house — even the storage in their basement.
Peterson pawned numerous items from Koske’s house, including possessions that had significant sentimental value — like jewelry with ivory Koske’s father harvested off an elk.
“I have a hard time believing that probation is an adequate punishment for this,” he said. “We want a jail term to give us peace of mind that nobody’s coming back.”
The Woods Landing Resort was also burglarized, and owner Bill Sheehan said he wanted “incarceration with treatment.”
“Recidivism is a waste of everyone’s resources, and I’d like to see something good come from this,” he said. “I don’t expect restitution, but I would like to see reformation of the individual.”
Both Koske and Sheehan also criticized the way the Albany County Sheriff’s Office handled the situation.
“The lack of security at that fire was unbelievable,” Koske said. “When someone tells you to leave your home, especially when it comes from the sheriff’s office, you’d expect your stuff to be protected. Obviously that didn’t happen.”
Sheehan expressed frustration for the way sheriff’s deputies presumed one of his employees had been responsible for the burglaries, leading to an unnecessary and lengthy interrogation.
Peterson’s attorney, David Kormin, also criticized the sheriff’s office for not going to a Colorado pawn shop to retrieve guns that Peterson had sold there.
“That’s the first case I’ve heard of where a law enforcement agency didn’t want to get stolen guns off the street,” he said.
Peterson was originally charged with aggravated burglary, which would have carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment for a conviction. However, prosecutors agreed to drop that charge as part of Peterson’s plea deal.