Justice was done Tuesday, or at least the best version of it available, when the second of two brothers who set Prophetstown's downtown ablaze was sentenced to fives years probation.|
Of course, it's easy for us to say that Whiteside County Judge Bill McNeal did the right thing in allowing the two boys, now age 17 and 12, to avoid incarceration for the July 2013 fire they admitted setting.
After all, we didn't lose the very heart of our historic town, our businesses or our homes in last summer's blaze.
That's why it's all the more remarkable that many of the victims in this village of 2,000 are finding their way from anger to forgiveness for the young men who admitted to sparking the tragedy after they sneaked out of their father's Prophetstown house and lit the disastrous fire.
"Someone almost died as a result of what you did," Judge McNeal told the 17-year-old, adding that, if it had been the judges' own home which had burned down, "I would want you to be locked up for as long as possible."
It must have been tempting for victims to push for the maximum punishment for a disaster that caused damages estimated at $2 million to $3 million. The tearful 17-year-old sentenced Tuesday appeared to understand the magnitude of his actions.
"I don't really know what to say, but I'm really sorry for what I did. It has changed my life forever," he told Judge McNeal. "And I will work as hard as I can to pay it off."
Townsfolk seem to have contented themselves with the opportunity for some victims to tell the 12-year-old face-to-face about the impact his actions had on them. Or by providing victim impact statements, like the one which Judge McNeal read at the 17-year-old's sentencing Tuesday. It was from a woman rescued by firefighters from the fiery blaze which destroyed her 35-year-old business, photographs of her children and the majority of her possessions.
"All down the drain in one night," Judge McNeal said.
For that victim and the host of others, coming back from such a massive loss is a difficult undertaking, but the community has made remarkable progress. The debris is gone, replaced for now by evergreen trees. Soon the lots all will have been sold and readied for potential redevelopment.
Still it must have been sorely tempting to seek harsher punishment for those responsible for the empty space where the heart of their downtown once stood. But those whom reporter Rachel Warmke talked to Tuesday were not anxious to see the boys locked up.
"At their age, I just don't see why they can't be helped," Mayor Steve Swanson said. "I'd like to see those two kids grow up to be productive citizens, which they could be.
"What they did was terribly wrong," he said. "But by the same token, I'm not sure putting them behind bars for a number of years is going to be better.
"It's certainly not going to bring those buildings back."
Testimony at Tuesday's hearing provided hope that the older teen will find the path the mayor hopes he will take. The teen's mother, with whom he lives in Wisconsin, said the fire already is causing him to turn his once-troubled life around. "He's starting to mature," she said. "He's starting to become an adult and (understand) what life is about." The strict and strictly enforced probation ordered by the judge can help him complete that journey.
In the wake of last July's fire, we touted the community's resiliency and its resolve. Today we add to that the amazing spirit of generosity that allowed them to set aside anger and forgive those responsible for changing their lives forever.
It's further proof that we were right when we said the village's strength was never in the bricks and mortar of those downtown buildings, but in the people who have sprung from the town's soil.
Bravo, Prophetstown. We can't wait to see what grows from the ashes of tragedy.
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