VIENNA — Gary Martin Travers Jr., 39, pleaded guilty on Jan. 13 to six felony counts of second-degree assault of a special victim and one felony count of second-degree arson causing injury or …
VIENNA — Gary Martin Travers Jr., 39, pleaded guilty on Jan. 13 to six felony counts of second-degree assault of a special victim and one felony count of second-degree arson causing injury or death originating from an incident in August 2019 that injured six Vienna volunteer firefighters.
Each of the felony charges carries a sentence ranging from five to 15 years. Following Travers’ plea, Prosecuting Attorney Tony Skouby, representing the state, recommended a sentence of five years for each charge to be served concurrently. Judge Joseph Purschke of Phelps County followed the recommendation and gave Travers seven five-year sentences that he will serve at the same time.
Travers must serve at least 85 percent of the sentences for the assault charges.
In February 2020, Maries County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Travers, and he received the charges. At a preliminary hearing in July 2020, a witness testified that Travers had told her he had set the fire.
When the volunteer firefighters responded on the morning of Aug. 16, 2019, to the fire on Highway 28, they did not know it would change their lives forever. The home where Travers’ mother, Beverly Oaker, and stepfather Jack Oaker lived, was on fire when they arrived. While the firefighters walked toward the house, it exploded.
The explosion extinguished the fire, but it threw the firefighters back several feet. Assistant Fire Chief Mark Buschmann and firefighters Mark Honse, Chad James, T.J. Jeremy, Chase Lenning and Mason Smith sustained various injuries, including second- and third-degree burns.
Several firefighters from the Vienna Fire Protection District and their family members attended the hearing. Buschmann and James gave victim-impact statements.
“Gary, I have known you and your family for a long time,” Buschmann began his statement. He reminded Travers of the couple of occasions when firefighters had been to the house before the day of the explosion. “Always, volunteers showed up to help and protect you and your family.”
Then, Buschmann shared the impact of that day on those involved with the department.
“This is a day that forever changed my life and the lives of so many others forever,” he said. “This date not only changed the lives of six volunteer firefighters that were hurt but all our firefighters that were on the scene and even those that were not. It still hurts them today.”
Buschmann talked about the response to the fire.
“We arrived on the scene very quickly and sized up the fire,” he said. “I was ready to send in my three guys to enter the dwelling when they came back, and one of the firefighters noticed that he only had 12 minutes of air on the readout on his mask. I told him to stay by the door and let the others enter. That tank only having 12 minutes of air is what saved their lives. They would have been in the house when it exploded.”
As the firefighters approached, the house exploded.
“A ball of fire and gasses shot straight at us toward Highway 28 and sent firefighters flying some 20 to 40 feet,” Buschmann continued. “This, as you can imagine, caused total chaos. I picked myself off the ground, and all I could hear was screaming. I tried to account for all my firefighters.”
Buschmann again addressed Travers directly.
“Gary, you will never know the pain these guys all went through pulling their clothes off and skin pulling off with the clothes,” he said.
Throughout his statement, Buschmann continued to address Travers by name.
“Gary, I don’t think you know the stress that this put on the firefighters and families of the ones that did not get burnt, and it’s more than you can imagine,” he said. “Gary, you have no idea; the weeks and months of pain and doctor visits we had. Some still deal with that pain every day in life.”
“Gary, the part that really bothers me is that when I got home that night from the hospital, and I was watching the news that night, I remember how bad I felt watching you and your family sitting in the yard of your family home all blown up,” he continued. “We were unable to save it, and seeing you all interviewed by news crews, how worried you were about the injured firefighters and how sad it was losing your family home, only to find out you caused all of this.”
Buschmann choked up as he said: “This community that we live in, and the surrounding fire departments and communities will never be broken, and stand together to show you this little town is way stronger than you know.”
Next, Buschmann shared a little about each of the six injured firefighters and how their experiences on the day of the explosion changed their lives. After each one, he told Travers that Travers was responsible for the changes in their lives.
“Gary, you will never know the stress that I went through that day being the officer in charge and how it affected me to this day with guys getting hurt under my watchful eye,” he said. “It’s still very hard for me to swallow to this day every time I look at those guys and how this has changed our lives and our family’s lives.”
In closing, Buschmann said that what he told the court was only seen through his eyes and not the eyes of all others.
“You hurt me, and my fellow firefighters, and their families, and this whole community for such a selfish act,” Buschmann told Travers. “You put us through more than you will ever know. We may be cracked, but we did not break. We will always have the scars on the outside that remind us of that day and hope that you have internal scars to remind you of that day, Aug. 16, 2019, when you chose to do such a selfish act.”
Following Buschmann’s statement, James gave a statement. He also addressed Travers and shared some of the effects that day had on him, including that he had to retire from work as a firefighter.
“I hope you realize the permanent damage your actions had,” James said.
After the hearing, Skouby said “we all wanted more” from the case.
“It was an emotionally charged case for all of us,” he said. “The dedication of our fire department was tested. This was a very difficult case to prove. I never could get a full confession from him.”
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