Taylor Kemp, 19, had repeatedly protested his innocence since he was charged in relation to the June 30 fire.
But Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to a violation of Ada County’s fireworks ordinance — admitting to lighting an illegal firework that authorities say burned more than 2,500 acres, destroyed a home and threatened dozens more, and blackened the well-known Boise Foothills landmark.
“It was a Roman candle, your honor,” Kemp told Magistrate James Cawthon as the judge accepted Kemp’s plea.
The guilty plea came on the day Kemp was scheduled to go to trial.
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Next, Cawthon will hold an evidentiary hearing to determine for sure if Kemp’s firework caused the Table Rock Fire. If confirmed, that will make him legally responsible, allowing prosecutors to seek restitution for firefighting costs and for the loss of the home.
Prosecutor Tamera Kelly and defense attorney Donald Price will meet with Cawthon on March 20 to set a date for the restitution hearing. Kemp will not be sentenced until sometime after that hearing.
An exact restitution amount has not yet been determined. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Boise Fire Department spent roughly $341,000, according to the latter agency. Van Danielson, the owner of the house that burned, said last fall that the home and family belongings added up to a more than $200,000 loss.
Kemp’s charge is a misdemeanor with a punishment of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
He originally pleaded not guilty to the charge in September.
The fire became a rallying point for a short-lived push to remove a loophole in state code: Idahoans can buy illegal fireworks in this state as long as they sign a waiver promising not to set them off here. Fire chiefs, including Boise’s Dennis Doan, argued for changing that law. But the House State Affairs Committee earlier this month rejected the measure, in part because it did not restrict sales on tribal reservations.
Prosecutors said in January that they had a witness who saw Kemp light off a firework at the scene.
In multiple interviews with the Idaho Statesman last year, Kemp denied lighting any fireworks near Table Rock. He said he and a friend “had a little box of firework poppers and were just throwing them trying to scare people.” Efforts to corroborate the friend’s version of events were unsuccessful.
He called 911 to report the fire — confirmed by the Ada County Sheriff’s Office — and later claimed sheriff’s deputies coerced him into confessing.
Speaking last September, Kemp said another group of people was shooting off Roman candles and he believed one of those started the fire.
He told the same story to a television station reporter the night of the fire. And, he shared it with detectives who interviewed him on the morning of June 30.
Detectives returned in August to speak with Kemp again. At that point, he confessed to setting off the Roman candles himself, adding that he bought them at a fireworks stand in Elmore County, according to the sheriff’s office.
To buy them, Kemp would have had to sign the aforementioned waiver. Asked last fall if Kemp’s waiver was in the files of a well-known Elmore County fireworks stand, the stand’s manager said that on his attorney’s advice, he couldn’t talk about it.