SEOUL -- A soldier accused of burning down a "Hooker Hill" brothel last fall was allowed to walk free Friday after judges ruled he was guilty of gross negligence in starting the fire but had not done so intentionally.
The Seoul Central District Court gave Pfc. Marcos Pedraza-Pascual a one-year suspended sentence, meaning he is essentially on probation. A prosecutor had recommended three years in prison.
The soldier testified during the trial that he was drunk and accidentally knocked over a candle that was sitting on a mattress in the Tiger Tavern, starting the fire last Nov. 15 that caused about $71,000 in damage to three buildings in the Itaewon district's Hooker Hill area, long known for prostitution.
"When you drink too much, that's what happens," Pedraza-Pascual told reporters Friday.
He also said other people had told him the South Korean judges "were just going to be racist and send me to prison" and that he was grateful to them for listening to his version of events.
The Tiger Tavern has been off limits to U.S. Forces Korea troops since 2003 for its suspected involvement in prostitution and human trafficking.
Pedraza-Pascual, of the 8th Army's Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, testified he drank six beers in his room at K-16 Air Base on the outskirts of Seoul before making the 20-minute trip to Itaewon. There, he had another beer at one bar and three more at the Tiger Tavern. He said he was intentionally binge drinking so he could get drunk, go to off-base bars and return to his post in time to meet a curfew imposed by the USFK commander following two high-profile rapes by USFK troops last September.
The brothel's owner, Lee Seo-yoon, had told the court that she did not believe Pedraza-Pascual burned down her business intentionally and said she did not want him punished because he was young and had no money to pay for the damage.
In May, a South Korean police officer testified that the soldier was acting erratically when police found him outside the nearby King Club several hours after the fire.
Questioning during the trial often centered on why Pedraza-Pascual ran out of the Tiger Tavern shortly after the fire began. He claimed he hoped to find a fire extinguisher at a nearby business but that everything in the area was closed. He said he didn't realize the severity of the fire at first and didn't return to the brothel because emergency vehicles had arrived and were blocking his path.
"At the time, I thought it was just a little fire on the bed," he testified. "I thought it was no big deal."
The case, however, attracted widespread attention here because it involved a U.S. servicemember and came after the two separate rapes by USFK troops sparked protests and calls to reform the Status of Forces Agreement under which U.S. troops are based in South Korea.