Armstrong pleads out to bonfire charges

Teen facing one year in jail, five years’ probation for 13 felony counts
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The man accused of causing a homecoming bonfire to go horribly out of control pleaded no contest to all of the charges against him on Feb. 5.

Samuel J. Armstrong, 18, has been charged with 13 felony counts of injury by negligent handling of explosives or fire when a diesel and gasoline mixture came in contact with the bonfire and the fire “began shooting out,” according to the criminal complaint.

A sentencing hearing was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. April 11 in Branch I of the Shawano County Courthouse. Shawano-Menominee County District Attorney Greg Parker is recommending a one-year jail sentence with six months stayed. With that sentence, Armstrong would be eligible for Huber work release privileges. Parker is also recommending a $100 fine for each of the 13 counts plus court costs, along with five years of probation.

If Armstrong’s case had gone to trial and he’d been convicted, he could have received 3½ years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine for each of the counts, according to state guidelines.

A Shawano County detective wrote in his report in the criminal complaint that he responded to a residence on Cedar Drive in the Town of Maple Grove on Oct. 15, 2022, after learning that several people between the ages of 16 and 18 were admitted to hospitals in Green Bay for burns and other injuries. The detective reported he found a spot that was “still smoldering,” indicating a fire had been burning. The fire pit was about 30 feet east of a two-story home, and the detective found empty containers and beer cans, along with a blue plastic 55-gallon barrel with the diesel/gasoline mixture.

The detective spoke with a man at the home, who told him how the fire got out of hand and burned people. The man told the detective that two people, one of whom was Armstrong, moved the blue barrel.

The detective interviewed Armstrong, who was 17 at the time, with an attorney present two days later, on Oct. 17, and was told “we decided to throw a barrel” on the fire, according to the detective’s report. Armstrong allegedly said he did not think the barrel would do what it did and injure someone.

Armstrong indicated to the detective that he and another person, identified in the report as “TJF,” moved the barrel closer to the fire, and about 10:50 p.m. was told by someone to “just do it,” and the pair allegedly threw the barrel into the fire.

Armstrong allegedly tried to help put out the flames on one of the victims when he was punched from behind, according to the criminal complaint. He claimed four or five people went after him, and he ran into a nearby cornfield, where he hid for about five minutes before leaving in his vehicle.

The criminal complaint indicates that Armstrong said he’d consumed six beers.

One of the victims told a detective he was burned on the back of his legs, suffering second- and third-degree burns, according to the criminal complaint. The victim reported seeing several others on fire and tried to assist by smothering the flames with his hooded sweatshirt before realizing he’d been burned, as well.

Another person interviewed by detectives claimed Armstrong made multiple comments about wanting to throw the barrel on the fire, even though a number of people warned him not to.

A victim indicated to a deputy that no one wanted to call 9-1-1 because a number of the underage people at the bonfire had been drinking alcohol.

At least one person had to go to the burn center in Milwaukee after suffering burns to his face, hands, legs and back.

Even with pleading to the criminal charges, Armstrong’s legal woes may not be over. There are currently five civil suits pending in Brown County Circuit Court where Armstrong is a defendant from victims injured in the bonfire. Four of the suits were filed Nov. 10, 2023, while the fifth one was filed Dec. 18, 2023.