Man charged in sex assault at fire camp agrees to plea deal

Man charged in sex assault at fire camp agrees to plea deal

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — An Idaho inmate accused of sexually assaulting a woman after he was sent to work at a wildfire base camp in Utah has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery.

The woman approved the plea deal so she could avoid having to testify in the case, prosecutor Kevin Daniels said Monday.

“After speaking with her and her family, she felt this would hold him accountable to a certain degree while not requiring her to testify,” Daniels said.

Ruben Hernandez, 28, was charged with felony rape in Utah after the woman reported that he assaulted her on Aug. 29 when she rejected his advances in a remote area about 80 miles (129 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.

He was part of a program in which low-level offenders nearing parole are temporarily released to help cook and clean at wildfire base camps supervised by two Idaho correctional officers.

Defense attorney Richard Gale said the plea deal is fair and reflects Hernandez’s level of culpability.

“We wish the best for the victim,” Gale said.

Hernandez could face up to a year in jail when he is sentenced.

Daniels said he plans to ask for the full sentence as well as restitution for therapy or medical bills. Hernandez must also serve out the remainder of his Idaho prison sentence on a drug charge. He had been eligible for parole in May 2019, but his full sentence was set to run until 2023.

A prison spokesman didn’t immediately return an email message Tuesday seeking comment on how the plea agreement will affect the remainder of Hernandez’s sentence or a review launched after his arrest.

Idaho pulled all its inmates back behind bars after the case was filed in August and announced they would review the way they select, train and deploy those inmates.

Most states in the U.S. West have similar programs. In California, hundreds of minimum-security inmates fought on the front lines during the state’s devastating wildfire season this year.

Utah ended its inmate program after men were injured a decade ago. Since the charges were filed, they’ve closed “loopholes” that allowed Idaho inmates to help at the Utah wildfire, Daniels said.

Hernandez had been sent to Utah to work on the Coal Hollow Fire. Like many wildfires, it was managed by a special team of federal and state agencies, so county authorities weren’t aware that Idaho inmates were part of the force of about 200 at the time of the assault.

The lightning-sparked blaze scorched about 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).