Australian convicted of starting deadly wildfire

March 19, 2012 - 8:46 PM

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — An Australian man was convicted Tuesday of deliberately starting one of the deadly wildfires that swept through southern Australia three years ago.

A Victoria Supreme Court jury on Tuesday found Brendan Sokaluk guilty of 10 counts of arson causing death for starting a blaze that killed 10 people and destroyed 156 homes.

It was part of the worst wildfire disaster in Australia's history: hundreds of fires across Victoria state that killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in February 2009.

Sokaluk, 42, did not react as the verdict was read. Each count carries a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

Prosecutors said Sokaluk deliberately lit the fire at two points. Sokaluk told police he accidentally started the fire after throwing a piece of paper wrapped around cigarette ash out his car window.

"My action caused a fire and that was an accident. I had no intention of causing any fires. ... I didn't mean for any of this to happen," he told police in a videotaped interview.

Sokaluk's lawyer, Jane Dixon, said her client is a simple man who suffers from autism and is incapable of concocting an elaborate cover story. "This was no calculated, contrived account," she told the court.

A sentencing date has not yet been set.