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news; Helena High Fire-secondary for cover

The damage from a Nov. 7 fire at Helena High, pictured in this photo from Nov. 8. So far, the running total on arson damages is $2.7 million and climbing.

HELENA — A 13-year-old Helena girl who admitted to setting fires that caused upwards of $3 million in damage to Helena High School received a suspended sentence Wednesday in youth court and was ordered to pay $250,000 in restitution.

The girl was intoxicated on malt liquor in November when she entered the high school with two others and ultimately started a fire in a janitor's closet in the math wing.

A stipulation of the sentence is she must complete in-patient chemical dependency treatment. If she doesn't, the girl will face being placed in a youth detention facility. She will be under supervision of youth probation until she turns 18.

The timing of the stay will be determined to the South Dakota treatment center, and Indian Health Services will cover payment.

She must also testify in the trial of her co-defendant, a teenage boy who is charged with the juvenile equivalent of arson. Another part of a plea agreement is the girl, who was already expelled from middle school, is banned from stepping foot in Helena High School.

Her attorney and the prosecutor came to an agreement that did not include incarceration. A juvenile probation officer who compiled the pre-sentence report recommended the girl be placed in a correctional facility.

Prosecutor Jeremy Gersovitz said he originally intended to ask for incarceration but then he and the probation officer, Tanya Murgel, ultimately flipped on their recommendations and he opted for a suspended sentence.

Judge Kathy Seeley went along with the agreement and gave the girl a suspended sentence until she turns 18. Seeley quickly added if the teen fails to comply with the conditions, another hearing will be held to determine her fate.

Murgel testified the decision was a daunting one. The girl has repeatedly violated rules and laws since her apprehension after the fire. Her violations ranged from cutting off her GPS bracelet to stealing malt liquor from a local store. Up until the day of the hearing, the girl was receiving reprimands for not complying with the rules of the youth detention facility where she was being housed, Murgel said.

"It has been difficult to work with her to say the least," Murgel said.

At the Great Falls center where she was being held, the girl had the least points of all the inmates, Murgel said.

Thus far, Murgel said, the efforts of juvenile probation and the Helena Indian Alliance have failed.

"An offense like that effected our entire community," Murgel added.

Keri Upham, a math teacher at the school, became tearful as she testified on the impact of the fire on her and her students.

"It was like I lost a piece of me," she said.

"I think they were greatly impacted by the whole thing."

For 23 years, Upham had been in her room right next to the closet where the fire started. The next day, when she saw the charred remains of photos, drawings and notes from students over those years, she sobbed.

"I just started crying. It was like everything was gone," she testified.

All classes were canceled the next two days at Helena High due to the extensive smoke and water damage. Her classes had to be held across the street while her classroom was mended. It took nearly three months before classes resumed in the damaged wing of the building.

"We kind of lost the whole family feeling," she said, adding her students lost the equivalent of a class per week in the 10-minute daily travel time to the temporary classroom.

The girl admitted to charges of arson, obstructing officers and alcohol possession. She told Seeley she started the fire in a custodian’s closet and ran when she saw police at the scene.

One of her alleged accomplices, another teenage girl, has admitted to obstructing a peace officer, possession of an intoxicating substance and possession of tobacco products. A count equivalent to a felony charge of burglary was dropped. She is currently at a residential treatment center for at-risk youth, according to testimony.

The third suspect, a teenage boy, is awaiting a July trial for juvenile equivalents of felony arson and burglary charges. If found guilty, the boy will be responsible for part of the $250,000 restitution, which was derived from the school district’s insurance deductible.

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