CARRIE ANTLFINGER Associated Press Writer — October 27, 2009
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Two brothers convicted of firing a military flare that sparked a meatpacking plant fire the day after Independence Day in suburban Milwaukee will celebrate the next three Fourth of Julys in jail to remind them of their crimes.
Kurtis J. Popp, 25, of Milwaukee, was sentenced Monday to 90 days in a local jail, which must be served for 30 days each July for the next three years. He also received three years probation and 500 hours of community service. Joshua J. Popp, 23, got the same sentence earlier this month.
As felons, the brothers are barred from owning firearms and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Dennis Cimpl made a point during Joshua Popp's sentencing Oct. 8 to say the order included fireworks such as M-80 firecrackers and sparklers. But he didn't mention it during Kurtis Popp's sentencing Monday. A message left at Cimpl's office later Monday to clarify was not immediately returned.
During Joshua Popp's sentencing, Cimpl said he wanted him to serve the time in July because he committed the crime in celebration of the Fourth of July.
Kurtis Popp, who along with his brother pleaded guilty to second-degree recklessly endangering safety in a plea agreement, apologized Monday. He told Cimpl he was thankful no one was hurt and he promised he'd never be in criminal court again.
"I can tell you that since this incident, there hasn't been a day that has gone by where I haven't thought about what occurred and regretted what I done," Popp said. "I've wanted to tell people how sorry I am for causing all this but I just didn't know what I would say to make people feel better."
Joshua Popp, who served two tours in Iraq and earned a Purple Heart, acquired the flare about two years ago when he was in the U.S. Marine Corps. He let his brother fire it July 5, and it landed on the roof of a building at the Patrick Cudahy Inc. plant in Cudahy.
Because it was a holiday weekend, only 10 people were in the plant, which is owned by Smithfield Foods Inc. The fire burned for days and destroyed four buildings. Thousands of residents were evacuated from the area.
Kurtis Popp's attorney, Julius Kim, argued Monday that Kurtis Popp deserved leniency because he lacked his brother's knowledge of the flare's firepower. But Cimpl disagreed and said Kurtis Popp otherwise seemed intelligent and knew he didn't have the training to launch the flare and it was dangerous.
"What you're being sentenced for is for being stupid," Cimpl said.
The men could have faced 10 years in prison and a fine of up $25,000 but under their plea agreements Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern said he recommended they serve time in a local jail, three years probation and community service and if they violated the sentence they would go to prison.
Lovern told the judge Monday previous damage estimates of $50 million were conservative. He said the company didn't want to be part of the criminal case and did not request restitution. A message left for a Smithfield Foods spokesman seeking comment was not immediately returned Monday evening.
Patrick Cudahy's last public statement, issued Sept. 4, said it wouldn't comment on the damage or its losses and expected the evaluation process to continue for several months.
Lovern said Kurtis Popp may not have known what the flare could do, but it was still a thoughtless act. He compared it to someone being handed a military machine gun and firing it and saying later they weren't aware it fired an automatic stream of bullets.
"To me it is still aggravating enough that a person would take something used in combat, something used on a battlefield potentially and use it in a residential neighborhood," Lovern said. "... That in and of itself underscores the level of recklessness on the part of Kurtis."
Lovern and Kim both later said they thought the sentence was fair. Kurtis Popp wouldn't comment outside of court Monday.