A Harvard Law School graduate admitted Wednesday to setting a fire at a temporary repository for Sept. 11 victims' remains, though he said he had been so drunk he barely recalled his actions.
"I cannot explain why I acted the way I did, but I take responsibility for my actions. I am sorry," Brian Schroeder said, his voice cracking slightly, as he pleaded guilty to arson, cemetery desecration and all the other charges against him in the Halloween 2009 fire.
Over prosecutors' objections, a judge said the 27-year-old Schroeder wouldn't get jail time if he completes 100 hours of community service and meets other conditions before he's sentenced next year.
Officials have said the remains themselves weren't harmed, but the fire caused $67,000 in damage, destroyed mementos left by victims' relatives and outraged family members and city leaders. Mayor Michael Bloomberg blasted the perpetrator as "craven and contemptible" in a statement shortly after the blaze at what's known as Memorial Park.
Since the 9/11 attacks, unidentified victims' remains have been housed in climate-controlled containers in a weatherproof tent along the East River in Manhattan. Eventually, they are to be moved to a permanent memorial at ground zero.
The temporary memorial is closed to the public, but victims' relatives can visit and leave flowers, pictures and other items on benches in a room set up for that purpose.
Schroeder was a few months out of law school when he climbed a fence and found his way into the tent after a night of partying at bars, he told police.
"Inside, I lit up frames, plants and benches, and I saw candles. It felt like an adventure, and I thought I was dreaming," he said, according to a court document recounting his remarks to a detective.
Schroeder said in court Wednesday he didn't remember setting the fire but had been made to understand that he did.
"I have a very limited memory of the events" because of heavy drinking in the hours beforehand, he said. He and his lawyer declined to comment after court.
State Supreme Court Justice Rena Uviller said she recognized the pain the episode had caused Sept. 11 victims' relatives, but she didn't believe jailing Schroeder was necessary. She imposed what is known as a deferred sentence, meaning Schroeder could still face a year in jail if he doesn't meet the community service and other requirements.
Schroeder is due back in court next month for a hearing on how much restitution he must pay. Schroeder lost a law firm job offer after his arrest.
Although victims' relatives deplored the fire, Schroeder's guilty plea and expected punishment struck at least one as a fair resolution.
"I think that he did the right thing by accepting responsibility for what he did," said Charles Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, died at the World Trade Center. Wolf has visited Memorial Park at times.
He didn't feel Schroeder deserved jail.
"Why ruin someone's life? He made a mistake," Wolf said.