A judge sentenced a teenager and a man charged with torching and destroying a historic Boy Scout meeting hall and Japanese Cultural Center in Arroyo Grande to state prison Monday after several people spoke about the painful loss.
The two defendants, who are friends, apologized and vowed to take the right paths in life when released.
Brian Ray Bellrose, 17, a former Arroyo Grande student, received seven years and eight months at Wasco State Prison. Caleb Joseph Pelletier, 20, of Creston, and a Cuesta College student, received five years at the same institution.
San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John Trice told the pair, who did not look at each other throughout the hearing, that the sentencing range was “huge” and probation was not an option.
“The punishments must be just, but I do not want to break these two young men or ruin them,’’ Trice said. “They will go to not such a nice place at all, but hopefully they will be placed in minimum security and where programs are available.’’
Bellrose and Pelletier will also have to pay restitution and register for life as convicted arsonists.
Several months ago, both young men accepted plea bargain agreements in the case.
Bellrose pleaded no contest to three counts of arson-related charges with enhancements of burning multiple structures, using a device and burning Boy Scout property including an American flag. Bellrose, who was charged as an adult, had several other related charges dismissed.
Pelletier also pleaded no-contest to arson and enhancements of burning multiple structures and using a device and had other related charges dismissed.
The early morning blaze on May 1, 2011, gutted the 1930s Arroyo Grande Boy Scout’s Hall in the 400 block of E. Cherry Avenue, which was also used for weddings, funerals, language classes and other cultural events. Bellrose and Pelletier had no connection to Troop 413 or the building, that also held historical significance for Japanese Americans.
Before the sentencing, Bellrose looked at the courtroom audience and then told Trice how sorry he was.
“I would like to apologize and came to understand no amount of money and no words can heal the loss,’’ Bellrose said in a firm voice. “I want to use the rest of my time to find my way back to a productive life.’’
In juvenile custody, Bellrose finished high school, completed an anger management course, took up meditation and played guitar for Sunday services.
Pelletier did not speak, though he has written letters apologizing. Pelletier’s attorney, Gerald Carrasco, told the court “Caleb has taken responsibility and it is his desire to turn his life around and become a productive member of society.’’
Pelletier’s mother Diane, and grandmother Virginia, also told Trice that Pelletier was a responsible boy and the fire was out of character for him. Both said he was “remorseful” and has expressed nothing but “regret.”
Judge Trice also listened to several community members before handing down the sentences.
Former Troop 413 Scoutmaster Chris Hagerty, who has attended all the hearings including those in juvenile court, said it’s impossible for any-one to really grasp what the building meant to more than 100 scouts and others each week - not to mention the Japanese community.
“This was a huge, huge blow to the community ... I watched grown men cry,’’ said Hagerty, adding the troop met there since 1969.
Greg Rubio, of Central Coast Judo, read a letter from one of the Japanese families who own the building. They spoke about the importance of the cultural center before and after WWII and described it as the last “sanctuary” to Japanese farmers.
“... I hope they get some help and don’t become part of the system,’’ Rubio said, referring to the defendants.
Prosecutor Caryn Michales told Trice that she appreciated all the work the attorneys, victims and court did in attempting to determine appropriate sentences.˪