Brendan McDonough, the sole survivor of a fire disaster that killed 19 Arizona firefighters, had sincere remorse in a 2010 vehicle-burglary case, according to a probation officer's report.
The pre-sentence report depicts a motivated, young father-to-be who deserved a second chance after a crucial lapse in judgment and who fretted that his felony conviction might ruin his chance to become a full-time firefighter.
McDonough, who at 21 was an experienced team member and fire-science student, was acting as fire spotter on Sunday evening with the Granite Mountain Hotshots just before the tragedy. This was his third season with the team.
From his vantage point on a hill, he read the environmental conditions and watched the fire line move closer. When it reached a certain point, he radioed the crew that he was relocating to a new position. Officials said McDonough looked back as he hiked and saw his previous position overrun by flames. He never heard from his crewmates again.
Officials released McDonough's name on Tuesday after having earlier stated that one crew member had survived the incident. McDonough showed up at a vigil Tuesday night in Prescott for the deceased crew members but didn't talk to the news media. He passed word through his supervisors that he wanted privacy.
"He is very distraught, as you might think," Wade Ward, Prescott Fire Department spokesman, told USA Today. "He is very emotional. He's got all the questions, the why and the why not. He's concerned for the families mostly. I can tell you Brendan has no desire to speak to anybody at this point."
McDonough was born in Lancaster, California, and was the second of two sons in the family, records show.
His father left the family when McDonough was 1. He's a drug user who's now in prison, McDonough told his probation officer. McDonough barely spoke with him over the years.
McDonough's mother moved the family to San Diego when he was 6, and from there to Prescott when he was 14. After graduating from Prescott High School, where he participated in the Air Force Junior Reserves and in wildfire training, McDonough made a few extra bucks each week by doing construction or landscaping as a day laborer. In 2009, he worked for a while at Nawlins restaurant as a prep cook and busser.
He used pot and alcohol occasionally, getting busted at age 18 for minor consumption of alcohol, but had quit drinking as of 2010 and didn't feel he had any problem with substances. He had recently moved in with his mother at the time of the pre-sentence report and attended Yavapai Community College, working toward a Fire Science degree His girlfriend was expecting a baby that February.
In December 2010, cops arrested McDonough while he was working out at a gym and booked him on three felony counts related to a September vehicle burglary in the parking lot of the Walmart on Gail Gardner Way. At a separate location, cops also nabbed his buddy and former roommate, Seth Taylor.
Prescott detectives had solved the crime after spotting McDonough and his car in a Walmart surveillance video from the day of the burglary, according to a December 29, 2010, story in Prescott's Daily Courier.
McDonough would later tell his probation officer that he just drove the getaway car after Taylor stole a radar detector and GPS unit from the victim's vehicle. He stopped associating with Taylor after that, realizing that he'd fallen in with the "wrong crowd," he told Karyn Stephens, probation officer.
He felt "ashamed" and disappointed in himself after his arrest, McDonough wrote in a defendant's statement.
Stephens found McDonough "honest, polite and remorseful," her report states. "He spoke with regret about the offense he has committed and knows that his actions affected another person's life as well as his own future."
Based on his minimal prior record and "willingness to atone" for the crime, Stephens recommended supervised probation with the option to have his charge reduced to a misdemeanor if everything went well.
In a plea agreement, McDonough pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking in stolen property and was sentenced to a term of supervised probation. Court records show he was released early from his probation terms, and the conviction was bumped down to a misdemeanor last year.
Should McDonough decide he wants to continue with a career in firefighting even after what he's been through, there's nothing stopping him.