A 71-year-old man on Tuesday admitted to leaving a hot stove unattended that started a fire last summer in his van outside a Walmart in Fridley, which spread to another van and killed a 6-year-old girl and badly burned her older sister.
Roberto L. Hipolito, of Long Beach, Calif., pleaded guilty in Anoka County District Court to two felony counts of negligent fire, while a more serious second-degree manslaughter count was dismissed.
The plea agreement calls for Hipolito to receive a five-year sentence. With credit for time in jail after his arrest, Hipolito would serve about 3¼ years in prison and the balance on supervised release. Formal sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 12.
Hipolito entered what is known as an Alford plea, meaning he acknowledges there is enough evidence to win conviction but maintains his innocence.
"This was resolved pursuant to a plea agreement which was crafted with the support of the victims' family," said Elizabeth Mohr, spokeswoman for the County Attorney's Office.
Ty'rah White died while being treated at HCMC. Taraji, her sister who was 9 years old at the time, survived.
Both were taken by ambulance from the store in the 8400 block of NE. University Avenue to HCMC shortly after the fire erupted about 7:10 a.m. Aug. 6.
The daughters of 34-year-old Essie McKenzie, of Coon Rapids, were alone in the van for 45 minutes to an hour as their mother shopped in the store, said Fridley Police Lt. Jim Mork. He said the girls might have been sleeping at the time and added that leaving children of that age alone in a vehicle is not against the law.
The charges against Hipolito say he admitted to authorities that he was using a stove near the van, which had North Carolina plates, to cook that morning and then placed it in the back of the vehicle. He said he and his wife had slept in the vehicle overnight in the parking lot.
Hipolito said he then went in the store, and the fire began within a couple of minutes. His wife fled the vehicle unharmed.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482