This undated photo provided by the Sanpete County Jail in Manti, Utah, shows Ruben Hernandez. Hernandez, accused of sexually assaulting a woman while he was working at a wildfire base camp in Utah, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery. (Sanpete County Jail via AP)

Man charged in sex assault at fire camp agrees to plea deal

December 26, 2018 - 8:37 pm

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — An Idaho inmate accused of sexually assaulting a woman after he was sent to work at a wildfire base camp in Utah has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery.

The woman approved the plea deal so she could avoid having to testify in the case, prosecutor Kevin Daniels said Monday.

"After speaking with her and her family, she felt this would hold him accountable to a certain degree while not requiring her to testify," Daniels said.

Ruben Hernandez, 28, was charged with felony rape in Utah after the woman reported that he assaulted her on Aug. 29 when she rejected his advances in a remote area about 80 miles (129 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.

He was part of a program in which low-level offenders nearing parole are temporarily released to help cook and clean at wildfire base camps supervised by two Idaho correctional officers.

Defense attorney Richard Gale said the plea deal is fair and reflects Hernandez's level of culpability. "We wish the best for the victim," Gale said.

Hernandez could face up to a year in jail when he is sentenced.

Daniels said he plans to ask for the full sentence as well as restitution for therapy or medical bills. Hernandez must also serve out the remainder of his Idaho prison sentence on a drug charge.

Idaho prison spokesman Jeffrey Ray said there has so far been no change to the date Hernandez is eligible for parole, May 2019, or the year when he his full sentence is set to finish, 2023.

An internal review of the incident concluded that officials need to do more to minimize interactions between inmates and other workers at fire camps, Ray said. That includes sending additional prison staff to supervise the inmates at the camps and have them do more frequent checks on the prisoners, he said.

The review discovered that at the Utah fire the inmates' tents were initially secluded. But as the fire grew, more tents were set up around them, he said. The inmates' tents should have been moved again to another secluded area, the review found.

Idaho pulled all its inmates back behind bars after the case was filed in August and announced they would review the way they select, train and deploy those inmates.

Most states in the U.S. West have similar programs. In California, hundreds of minimum-security inmates fought on the front lines during the state's devastating wildfire season this year.

Utah ended its inmate program after men were injured a decade ago. Since the charges were filed, they have closed loopholes that allowed Idaho inmates to help at the Utah wildfire, Daniels said.

Hernandez had been sent to Utah to work on the Coal Hollow Fire. Like many wildfires, it was managed by a special team of federal and state agencies, so county authorities weren't aware that Idaho inmates were part of the force of about 200 at the time of the assault.

The lightning-sparked blaze scorched about 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).

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