GREAT FALLS — Three young men are facing criminal charges for allegedly causing the Gibson Flats Fire that destroyed 11 homes and dozens of other structures just outside of Great Falls last week.
Brandon Cordell Bennett,, Jr. 18 years old; Jevin James Mclean, 19; and Galvinn Coates Munson, 19.
The fire on Wednesday, December 1st, 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 we have received reports that several pets perished.
The fire started in a field around at 2:45 a.m. and was whipped by powerful winds with gusts of more than 50 miles per hour. Great Falls Fire Rescue estimated that the fire burned about 120 acres.
Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter hosted a news conference on Wednesday afternoon; he began by showing aerial (drone) video of the Gibson Flats area, highlighting the extent of the damage.
"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 explained.
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.”
On Wednesday morning, Keith Deroche was helping a friend, who declined to be interviewed, install a new pump house after the previous one burned in the fire.
Deroche had this to say about the news that teens have been charged: "It's very disturbing."
Deroche himself lost a truck and a cargo trailer, but put it in perspective: "Things are replaceable. The most important thing is human life."
Slaughter also said that the Great Falls Association of Realtors (406-453-2752)and the Home Builders Association of Great Falls (406-452-4663) are offering to help people impacted by the fire.
The three suspects made their initial court appearances on Wednesday afternoon.
Bond for Munson was set at $100,000. He is facing charges of arson with accountability, negligent arson, criminal mischief, and numerous counts of criminal endangerment.
Bond for McLean was set at $50,000; he is charged with arson by accountability. Prosecutors allege that he participated in lighting fireworks in the windy conditions.
Bond for Bennett was set at $50,000; he is charged with arson by accountability. Prosecutors allege that there is reason to believe that he supplied the fireworks. He also reportedly "wiped" his phone, leading to a charge of tampering with evidence.
We will update you as we get more information.