For betraying his badge and his stepson by drawing him into a deadly arson-for-profit ring, a veteran Baltimore police officer was sentenced to two years in federal prison without parole yesterday.
Gary L. Budny, 46, tearfully pleaded with the judge in U.S. District Court in Baltimore for leniency. His hands clasped behind his back, Budny said he made the biggest mistake of his life when he persuaded his stepson, also a city police officer, to serve as a lookout for the ring.
"I'd like to apologize to my wife and my family," the 23-year veteran of the force said, his voice cracking. "I'd also like to publicly apologize to my son, Ian, for dragging him into this tragedy."
U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said Budny had betrayed the police department and the city. He also said Budny betrayed his stepson, who was on the force for five years when he became part of the arson ring that set a series of fires in East Baltimore between 1993 and 1995, leaving two people dead.
"What happened here can perhaps be forgiven by the Almighty," Motz said, "but it cannot be forgiven by this court."
The judge ordered Budny, a Vietnam veteran who worked in the city's canine division, to start serving the two-year prison term within 30 days. He also ordered the former police officer to serve three years of probation and undergo psychiatric treatment. Budny told the judge that he tried to take his own life after his arrest last year, and has been taking Prozac to battle depression.
Budny began his association with one of the ring members more than 13 years ago, when he met Robert "Ricky" Milligan, who managed a Crazy John's restaurant that was on the officer's beat.
Milligan later formed a corporation and began to purchase rowhouses on the east side of Baltimore. In spring 1995, Gary Budny overhead Milligan talking about setting some of the rowhouses on fire to collect insurance money.
Paul J. Bebber, a cook at Crazy John's, became the "torch" of the operation, setting gas-soaked rowhouses on fire. Milligan's brother, Gary M. Milligan, and a private detective, Thomas W. Smith III, also joined the ring, court records show.
In June 1995, Ricky Milligan asked Gary Budny for his help. He wanted Budny to enlist the support of his stepson, Ian, who patrolled the streets surrounding the rowhouses. Budny asked his stepson to serve as a lookout and clear the area, but Ian refused twice, according to court records.
Ricky Milligan also offered Ian Budny $5,000. Again, he refused.
Finally, Ian Budny acceded to his stepfather's wishes. On July 1, 1995, he cleared the 1300 block of N. Rose St. and the fire was set. Ian Budny later falsified police reports about what he witnessed that night, court records show.
The ring members were arrested last year after an investigation by Baltimore detectives and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. They discovered that as part of the ring's plan, Bebber, Smith and the Milligan brothers, who are white, tried to blame the fires on their tenants, who were black, court records show. The men told fire investigators the tenants set the blazes in retaliation for their evictions.
On July 4, 1995, the arson-for-profit plan turned deadly. The men set fire to a home on East Lombard Street. With gasoline fumes filling the house, it exploded. A next-door neighbor, Arlene "Andrea" Pinti, suffered a heart attack and died a month later from an infection she contracted during open-heart surgery.
Motz found that her death, along with the death of Vernard D. Jones, who sought refuge in one of the burned homes, resulted from the arsons. His ruling boosted the prison terms for Bebber, Gary Milligan and Smith.
Last month, Gary Milligan was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Smith received a 20-year term. And Robert "Ricky" Milligan was ordered to spend 17 1/2 years behind bars. Ian Budny is scheduled to be sentenced this morning.
Yesterday, Motz said he was deeply troubled by the case.
"I wish that I understood all that happened so I could prevent it from happening again," the judge told Gary Budny.
"It was just stupid," Budny replied. "I just didn't think."
"It's a terrible betrayal of trust," Motz said. "There's a broader understanding by society that this just can't be tolerated."
Pub Date: 8/28/97