GREAT FALLS — Three young men were in court today (September 6, 2022), charged with causing the Gibson Flats Fire that destroyed 11 homes and dozens of other structures just outside of Great Falls on December 1, 2021.
The three are Brandon Cordell Bennett, Jr.; Jevin James Mclean; and Galvinn Coates Munson.
The fire destroyed at least 11 homes, 11 garages, and numerous outbuildings and cars in the neighborhood that adjoins the southeast side of Great Falls. There were no serious injuries reported, although there were reports that several pets perished.
During Tuesday's court appearance, all three men changed their initial pleas, and have now pleaded guilty to the charges against them and said take responsibility for what happened on December 1st, adding that they realize the further damage that could've occurred.
MTN talked with some of the victims that had property destroyed by the fire.
Barney Cooper said he lost everything during the fire: "I'd like to see them have more punishment than what we've seen because they're basically getting away with something."
Lynn Chmiel said she lost some personal belongings, and added, "I was one of the blessed ones and I still have a home. The fire literally burned a circle outside my house, so I lost everything outside my home. I lost four generations of memories ... I understand the financial reason behind the plea agreements, and I can see it for the other two, but for Munson, I would like to see him go to trial so I can see him serve the maximum. He literally held the lighter, which started the fire, so I think he should be held more accountable for it."
Michael and Davida Hryszko said they almost lost their lives. They said they lost their garages, 2007 Shelby GT Hertz, which is very hard to come by, along with some family photos and military memorabilia.
Davida stated, "What I saw was just the system. It doesn't protect the victim for sure. It doesn't seem like they are going to get their due, but that's for the guy upstairs to help out with, and restitution...we'll see about that."
Sentencing has been delayed for several weeks due to the time required to contact all the victims and gather statements, and determine restitution information and damages.
During a news conference several days after the fire, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said, "One of the defendants disclosed that all three of them were driving around the area the night this occurred smoking marijuana and shooting fireworks at each other inside the vehicle.”
Slaughter said the fire was actually two separate fires, both started by Munson.
"The initial fire was started with the intentional setting off of a Roman candle, intentionally shooting it into the grass. Fire number two was set, according to statements by Munson, with a lighter,” said Slaughter.
As for a motive? "I can't speak to if they actually had a plan. I believe it was more of an impulsive act,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter said the fact that no human lives were lost is a "complete miracle."
He also said, "I don't know if anybody who loses their home can be made whole again. There's a lot of memories, there's a lot of irreplaceable items. Pictures, photographs, family memorabilia, things like that that can never be made whole again. There's no amount of money in the world that can make these people feel, probably, whole. It's really sad.”