updated 2/16/2007 3:31:31 PM ET 2007-02-16T20:31:31

A man once hailed a hero for rescuing youngsters out of a burning apartment complex was sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with the fire.

Kristopher Leija received the maximum sentence by a judge Thursday, two months after he was convicted of vehicular arson, a second-degree felony. A nearby trailer caught fire and spread to the 21/21 Apartments in 2003, leaving about 70 families homeless but not injuring anyone.

Leija, 26, had told authorities that after spotting a police car, he tossed his lit marijuana cigar into a trash-hauling trailer a contractor had been using to renovate the apartments.

At Thursday's sentencing hearing, Leija repeated that he had not intended to set the trailer or apartments on fire. He said he takes responsibility for the disaster and told the judge he was sorry.

At the December trial, defense attorney Monte Sherrod told jurors that his client "probably started the fire, but it was a big accident."

Taylor County jurors acquitted Leija of arson of a habitation, a first-degree felony, and arson of a building, a second-degree felony.

The night of the blaze, Leija was videotaped helping four children escape. The resulting TV coverage led to his arrest the next day, however, after sheriff's deputies recognized him as a probation violator for a burglary conviction.

Although investigators identified Leija as a suspect early on, he was not charged with setting the fire until 2005.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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