Crestline fire penalty: 10 days, $2 million

Teen also gets 150 hours of community service

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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In an emotional court hearing Monday, a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to 10 days in juvenile detention, $2 million in restitution and 150 hours of community service for his role in starting a fire that destroyed Vancouver's Crestline Elementary School.

Dylan Mork pleaded guilty in Clark County Juvenile Court last month to starting the fire.

"Nothing in the record indicates you intended to burn down the school," said Court Commissioner Dayann Liebman. "It was stupid, but I'm not seeing any real malicious intent."

The three-alarm early morning fire Feb. 3, 2013, destroyed the school, at 13003 S.E. Seventh St., and resulted in an estimated $22 million in damage. It displaced 500 students and 50 staff for the rest of last school year and all of this year.

Mork expressed remorse Monday for his actions. He set fire to a children's coat laying on a bench near the school building. The flames then spread to the school, according to court records.

"I'm going to do whatever it takes to make up for my actions that night," Mork said.

A Crestline Elementary teacher who spoke during the sentencing hearing took him up on his offer.

"You made a really poor decision in what you did," said Audrey Christina, a third-grade teacher at Crestline. "I forgive you, and I really hope you can forgive yourself."

She then invited him to fulfill some of his community service obligations by helping her set up her classroom in the replacement Crestline building, which opens to students in the fall.

He agreed to help her.

Christina then embraced Mork, eliciting a tearful response from some people in the courtroom's public gallery.

After the fire, students and staff were divided by grade level and sent to five elementary schools for the remaining four months of the 2012-13 school year. For the 2013-14 school year, students and staff were housed in temporary quarters on the former Hewlett-Packard campus on Southeast 34th Street.

The new Crestline school is set to be completed Aug. 1 to give teachers time to move in and set up their classrooms. The school will have upgraded technology, security and, notably, fire-suppression systems. Those weren't required at the time the original Crestline was constructed in the early 1970s. The new school is being built based on an updated plan and will resemble Endeavour Elementary.

On the morning of the fire, Mork was staying the night with a friend. He and the friend sneaked out of the house about 1:30 a.m. to meet some other friends on the Crestline Elementary campus, apparently a then-popular hangout for high school students, said his attorney, Jack Green. They were under the influence of marijuana and alcohol, Green said.

The friends were late, and Mork felt bored, Green said. Mork set fire to a children's coat that was lying on a bench near the school.

"I think it was just a matter of impulse," Green said. He waited until the flames died out and then left the campus, Green said.

The bench was highly flammable, and the flames leapt up a 13-foot brick wall into the school's attic, said Deputy Prosecutor Dan Gasperino. From there it mushroomed, leveling the building.

Gasperino said Mork began cooperating from the outset of the investigation, but investigators didn't reveal they had a suspect until April because they wanted to make sure Mork's story checked out. They sent an identical bench from Silver Star Elementary School to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to test Mork's account of the fire. Testing corroborated Mork's version of events.

The benches at Crestline and Silver Star were donated by the schools' respective parent-teacher organizations in the 1970s or 1980s. No other benches of the same kind are in Evergreen Public Schools, said school district spokeswoman Gail Spolar. She said she doesn't know the manufacturer of the benches.

Gasperino said Mork's cooperation had saved countless hours of time and money, and he said he considered that cooperation when he charged Mork with second-degree arson instead of first-degree arson.

But the prosecutor argued Monday for the maximum sentence — 30 days' detention — based on the $22 million in damages the fire caused.

Green said 10 days of detention was sufficient, given Mork's low risk of recidivism.

Green said Mork was 15 at the time of the incident and has no previous criminal history. Since the fire, he has worked hard to improve his grades, Green said. He plans to attend college, and he's already completed about 30 hours of community service, the defense attorney said.

"Many of us have had moments in life when he look back and say, 'I wish I could do that over again.' Unfortunately for Dylan, the one thing he would redo got broadcast all over the nation."