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Boy, 12, pleads guilty to arson in Prophetstown fire

STERLING – A 12-year-old boy who, along with his half-brother, was accused of setting a fire that burned down much of downtown Prophetstown in July pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of arson.

He was sentenced to five years of probation, the maximum probation sentence allowed. The 18 other charges against him were dismissed.

The terms of probation for the 12 year old won’t allow him to possess any incendiary devices or have unsupervised contact with his 16-year-old half-brother, who is also accused of starting the fire that destroyed eight buildings July 15 in the historic downtown.

The boy also will participate in victim-offender conferencing, which will give victims of the fire an opportunity to express the impact the arson had on their lives and the community. This will be the first time that tactic is used in Whiteside County.

“You’re very young,” Whiteside County Associate Judge Bill McNeal said Tuesday. “The act you committed was very serious ... I’m sure that on that night you didn’t mean to burn down a big chunk of Prophetstown.”

“No, sir,” the boy said.

“I wish you the very best,” McNeal said. “You take care.”

The boy left the courtroom, as did his maternal grandmother, who had traveled to Illinois from New York for the court appearance.

Then entered his older half-brother. His attorney, Mark Holldorf, asked that he be taken off electronic monitoring or be given more lenient conditions.

McNeal denied both requests, saying that it’s still too soon. The 16-year-old next will appear in court Feb. 18.

Assistant State’s Attorney Carol Linkowski said both boys were interviewed after the fire by state police and an arson investigator. Linkowski said the boys indicated they had sneaked out of their father’s house and that the 16 year old had a lighter. She said they first set a fire to a recycling bin by the library, which they watched burn out, before starting the fire behind Cindy Jean’s Restaurant. The boys took off their shirts and added them to the fire to increase the size of the flames, Linkowski said.

Authorities say it was the fire behind the restaurant that spread and destroyed eight buildings, damaged two others, and left more than half a dozen people homeless.

The fire erupted around 2:30 a.m. in the 300 block of Washington Street, which is the town’s main street and the heart of its historic downtown business district.

The buildings were about 150 years old and housed business such as D’s Variety Store, Twisted Scissors salon, Kim’s Monograms, and the town’s historical society.

The town now controls five of the eight lots, and officials hope to acquire two more to make it easier to entice developers to build by donating the lots to them.

The rebuilding effort is expected to pick up steam in late April or early May, when it’s possible that a developer will “break dirt” on a new building, said Larry DeNeve, chairman of the town’s economic development committee.

Shaw Media is not identifying the boys because they are charged as juveniles.

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