STERLING, Ill. — Breaking down in tears, a 17-year-old Wisconsin boy apologized Tuesday for setting a massive fire in July in downtown Prophetstown, Ill.
"I don't know what to say, but I'm really sorry for what I did," the boy told Whiteside County Associate Judge Bill McNeal. "It changed my life forever."
The boy's mother and father, who sat behind him on opposite ends of a court bench, cried as he spoke.
During a lengthy sentencing hearing Tuesday, McNeal sentenced the boy to probation for five years, or until he turns 21, for the fire that destroyed eight buildings, damaged two others and left several people homeless.
McNeal also sentenced the boy to 30 days in a juvenile detention center, equivalent to an adult jail, with credit for seven days already served in the Mary Davis Home in Galesburg, Ill.
Whether he will have to serve the remaining 23 days will be determined during an Aug. 12 review hearing. Restitution in the case also will be settled at a later time, McNeal said.
The boy and his family declined to comment after the hearing. His attorney, Mark Holldorf, also declined comment.
The boy pleaded guilty to arson in March. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped additional charges of residential arson and criminal damage to property.
The boy's 12-year-old half brother pleaded guilty to arson in January and was sentenced to five years probation.
The older boy, armed with a lighter, and his brother sneaked out of their father’s Prophetstown home early on July 15 and set fire to a plastic recycling bin near the library and watched the flames burn out.
They then set fire to a plastic bin behind Cindy Jean's Restaurant, 324 Washington St. The boys took off their shirts and added them to the fire to create larger flames.
Theolder boy, then 16, was on supervision on a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct out of Winnebago County, Wis., at the time of the Prophetstown fire.
In 2007, he was given informal deferred prosecution for setting a fire to a trash bin in a restroom at his elementary school. He also was given an informal deferred prosecution in a 2012 disorderly conduct case.
The boy's mother testified Tuesday that since the fire, he has had no disciplinary issues, has gotten good grades and attends counseling and church youth group regularly.
"He's started to mature, he's started to become an adult, and he's started to know what life's all about," she testified Tuesday.
Whiteside County Assistant State's Attorney Carol Linkowski recommended that the boy be sentenced to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice based on his prior history with arson and the fact that he set the fire while he was on supervision in another case.
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Holldorf argued that the boy has complied with all the terms of his bond since the fire and that he is doing "better than ever before" in school and with his behavior.
Although McNeal praised the boy for the work he's done, he expressed concern about his prior arson conviction.
"I want you to be supervised," McNeal said. "I'm very, very concerned about you doing something like this again or worse."
McNeal said, however, he thinks the boy would have better access to support services at home, rather than in a juvenile prison.
McNeal further ordered that the boy must continue with counseling, undergo mental health evaluation and treatment, perform 200 hours of community service, abide by a curfew and take a fire safety course.
He will remain on global positioning system, or GPS, home monitoring for at least a few more weeks, McNeal ordered.
The Quad-City Times is not naming the boys because they are charged as juveniles.