Fire finishes alleged Snowmass marijuana-growing operation |

Fire finishes alleged Snowmass marijuana-growing operation

Katie Redding
Snowmass Village CO, Colorado

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colorado ” After marijuana-grow lights that allegedly belong to him started a fire in his employee-housing unit Wednesday, William Russell was asked to immediately vacate his ground-floor unit at Snowmass Villas North, authorities said.

“It almost goes without saying,” Police Chief Art Smythe said. “We have waiting lists for employee housing. I’m sure the housing department takes a pretty dim view of anyone engaging in illegal activity in employee housing.”

Russell, 41, was arrested Wednesday on felony charges of arson and marijuana cultivation after authorities responded to the fire in his apartment and reportedly found more than a dozen marijuana plants. Grow lights used in the operation apparently ignited the fire, Smythe said.

“We are certain enough to charge the tenant with fourth-degree arson,” he said.

The charge alleges that he recklessly started a fire that could have endangered others. Running a marijuana-growing operation in the middle of a housing development is a reckless act, Smythe said. Villas North is home to 32 units in four buildings.

Around noon Wednesday, Christopher Mears, who lives above Russell, heard a loud boom that shook the floor beneath him, he said. Minutes later, Mears, an employee of the Snowmass housing department who had just returned from a vacation, smelled smoke and went downstairs to investigate.

When no one responded to his knocks and the smell of smoke grew stronger, Mears ran upstairs to retrieve his work keys so he could open the door, he said. He found the living room filled with smoke, and the bedroom doorknob too hot to touch. He immediately called 911 and began knocking on doors to evacuate the building.

“We’re so fortunate he was home to catch this before the building was seriously engulfed in flames,” said Joe Coffey, the town’s housing manager.

Responding fire and police kicked in the bedroom door and found the room “filled with smoke, really black,” Mears said. The fire was quickly extinguished, Smythe said.

Several small containers of gasoline stored in the apartment were far enough away from the fire that they did not ignite, Smythe said.

The smoke and heat damage to the unit was extensive, according to the police chief. Coffey called the damage the worst he’s seen in 28 years of managing Snowmass housing ” and added that Russell will be responsible for the cost of repairs. No other units were affected, and no tenants were displaced by the fire.

Coffey said he hopes to be able to rent the unit to a new tenant by the middle of November.

After a preliminary investigation indicated that the high-intensity grow lights likely started the fire, Russell ” the sole tenant of the one-bedroom apartment ” was arrested when he returned to his apartment while authorities were still there, Smythe said.

Russell has posted $10,000 bond, said the police chief.

Coffey and Smythe said that Russell had been a resident of employee housing for many years.

“It was just a shock to everyone,” said Coffey, who noted that the housing department checks smoke alarms on a regular basis and responds to maintenance requests ” but does not inspect apartments as long as tenants appear to be following the rules and paying rent.

Coffey said he has had to evict other residents from employee housing in the past for not following rules, including those regarding illegal drugs.

“We will not tolerate people who can’t obey the lease rules,” he said.

If convicted, Russell faces penalties of between $2,000 and $500,000 and between two and six years in jail, Smythe said.

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