About 10 months after an arson fire that destroyed a Payette family’s house and irrevocably changed their lives, a judge had one question:
“Why? Why did you do this? You’ve had a lot of time to think about it,” 3rd District Judge Susan Wiebe asked Paul Hendrix-Mills at his sentencing on Dec. 16. He was the first of four boys to be sentenced.
“We didn’t intend for the house to light on fire,” Hendrix-Mills said, according to court records. “We thought it would be funny.”
“You just thought it would be funny?” the judge said.
“Not like the house catching on fire, just the garbage can,” Hendrix-Mills said. “We just weren’t thinking at all.”
Mark Heleker and his wife, Lorrie, were sound asleep early on Feb. 22 when the fire spread from that garbage can to their house — a half mile from the high school where Mark was principal for nine years. Their adult daughter, Katie, returned home late from work and warned them in time to escape uninjured, along with a dog, snake and lizard that Katie grabbed on the way out.
The couple lost three cars and irreplaceable mementos, including family photos of their kids and from their own childhoods.
Payette Police Chief Mark Clark told the Statesman last March that the motive for the fire appeared to be revenge. He said investigators believed the boys set the fire in retaliation for two of them being punished for drug-related issues following an investigation into students sickened by ingesting stolen prescription drugs.
Nearly a year later, the Helekers say rebuilding their lives has been difficult.
“It has been 10 months that I would not wish on anybody,” Mark Heleker said as part of his victim impact statement during a sentencing in December.
‘Stupid act by a bunch of stupid kids’
Four boys who ranged in age from 14 to 16 were charged with felony crimes. Since then, all four have pleaded guilty to charges in connection to the fire. Two have been sentenced.
The fire was “a stupid act by a bunch of stupid kids,” a prank against the principal that might not have been a big deal if they’d left the lid on the garbage can closed, defense attorneys said in court.
But it also could have turned out immeasureably worse if the Helekers’ daughter, Katie, had not worked late that night, Wiebe told one of the defendants: The fire could have killed everybody in the home.
Some social media posts by the boys in the hours after the fire raised eyebrows and drew the attention of investigators. One by Donavan Ferreira — “burn, b---h, burn” with a flame emoji — did not reflect the surprise or remorse that the fire had spread from the garbage can to the house, Wiebe said.
“I would have expected something like ‘OMG, I can’t believe that happened,’” Wiebe told Ferreira at his Jan. 5 sentencing. “I realize that you’re a teenager but, really, that is kind of amazing.”
Ferreira’s attorney chalked it up to “teenage bravado.”
Two prosecuted, sentenced as adults
In Idaho, juveniles charged with certain felonies are automatically tried as adults. But those who are sentenced are often given “blended sentences,” serving time in a juvenile detention center until they become of age and can be transferred to an adult prison.
Two of the boys received blended sentences:
▪ Hendrix-Mills, a 14-year-old middle school student at the time of the fire, was charged with felony first-degree arson and felony criminal conspiracy. He pleaded guilty Dec. 16 to felony second-degree arson.
At his sentencing, when the judge asked if he had anything to say, he responded: “No ma’am, just that I’m sorry for ... doing this stuff. I didn’t think nothing. I was only thinking about the present. I wasn’t thinking about the future or the damage it could cause.”
He was sentenced to 15 years’ incarceration, including five years before parole is an option. But Wiebe retained jurisdiction, which means she can release him on probation sooner if he does well in prison-based programs and follows all rules and requirements. He was ordered to pay restitution, court fines and fees of $31,176.17.
▪ Ferreira, a 16-year-old high school student at the time of the fire, received the same charges and reached the same plea deal Jan. 5. He was sentenced to 10 years of incarceration, including two years before any possible parole. Wiebe again retained jurisdiction, and he was ordered to pay restitution, court fines and fees of $32,389.26.
Two prosecuted as juveniles
The other two boys, Marshall Turvey and Travis Kenney, will be sentenced at 9 a.m. this coming Feb. 21 — just a day before the anniversary of the fire. They were charged as adults but were prosecuted as juveniles after negotiations between their attorneys and the Payette County Prosecutor’s Office.
Each boy was charged with felony criminal conspiracy to commit arson in the second degree, and each pleaded guilty to that charge in December.
Both attended Payette High School. Turvey was 15 at the time of the fire, and Kenney was 14.
Meanwhile, the Helekers rebuild
The Helekers have been pillars of Payette, a rural community of about 7,500 that’s a little over an hour’s drive from Boise. Before retiring last year, Mark was a school administrator for 22 years and previously served as city councilman and mayor. Lorrie is in her 13th year as a special education teacher at McCain Middle School.
A GoFundMe account set up by a student to help raise money for the Heleker family had a goal of $2,000, but secured nearly $7,000 through 123 donations.
The Helekers lived in a hotel for a couple months, then later moved into a rental house. They said they were going to rebuild their house. Mark Heleker declined to comment for this story, saying he was concerned about impacting the legal process.