- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a woman to eight years in prison for torching a failing restaurant she owned in a Cheyenne hotel two years ago, an act prosecutors say endangered more than 50 people staying there.

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson on Wednesday sentenced Judi Bufkin, 53, to eight years in prison on her guilty plea to a federal arson charge. He ordered her to serve three years of supervised probation and pay over $110,000 restitution, mainly to an insurance company.

Bufkin pleaded guilty to arson in the October 2012 fire at the Judi’s Cajun Kitchen restaurant, which she operated in the Central Plaza Hotel building in Cheyenne. No one was injured in the fire.

Federal prosecutor Stu Healy said there were over 50 people in the downtown hotel - 49 guests and the owner and his family - when the fire started. He said Bufkin’s actions showed disregard for human life.

“There were over 50 people who could have been killed in the hotel,” Healy said. “And the disregard that Ms. Bufkin had for those people - she might not have been thinking, ‘I don’t care what happens to these people,’ but that’s the effect.”

Defense lawyer David Weiss said Bufkin didn’t intend to endanger anyone. “Ms. Bufkin make a terrible decision and committed an act where fortunately no one got hurt,” Weiss said.

Weiss said Bufkin wasn’t typical of criminals who come through the court system. “We don’t see many first-time offenders who are 53 who have led the life that’s she’s led,” he said. “It’s a rarity in the system.”

Prosecutors originally had charged Bufkin with using fire to commit felony offenses and wire fraud but agreed to drop those charges in a plea agreement. The indictment alleged she submitted a false insurance claim after the fire.

Weiss said Bufkin’s plea agreement cut her minimum sentence from 15 years to eight. Even so, Weiss said he didn’t know what it would achieve to sentence Bufkin to eight years in prison. “I don’t believe she thought she was putting people in danger,” he said.

Bufkin told Johnson that she had a successful career before the arson and was not a career criminal. She said the eight-year minimum sentence under the plea deal was “kind of harsh,” even though she said she understood it’s what the law specifies.

Cheyenne lawyer Richard Slater represents hotel owner Salah Assem. “His foremost concern obviously was that no one was hurt,” Slater said of Assem.

The judge ordered Bufkin to pay Assem $7,500 in restitution.

Johnson told Bufkin there was nothing that would have prevented her from leaving the keys to the restaurant and walking away from her lease. Instead, Johnson said, Bufkin made a choice to try to defraud the insurance company.

Johnson said Bufkin’s sentence “reflects the outrage that the community must feel for the risks you created for the lives of others.”

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