Judge denies motion to suppress Miller’s comments in Lake Christine Fire case
A judge Friday denied a motion to suppress statements Richard Miller made to law enforcement officials when he was questioned at the Basalt shooting range immediately after the Lake Christine Fire broke out July 3.
Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman ruled that prosecutors would be able to use Miller’s comment regarding the type of ammunition being fired by the rifle used by his girlfriend, Allison Marcus.
In a hearing Thursday, Heidi McCollum, Assistant District Attorney in the 5th Judicial District, said Miller initially was uncooperative with investigators about the type of ammo used in the rifle he and Marcus borrowed from Miller’s dad.
McCollum said when an Eagle County deputy sheriff asked to look in an ammunition box, Miller replied, “Well, if I can be honest, it was tracer rounds.”
Investigators suspect that incendiary tracer rounds ignited dry grass on the edge of the rifle range. The fire eventually burned 12,500 acres of national forest and private land.
The attorneys for Miller and Marcus claimed that his comments should be prohibited from use at trial because no law officer read him his Miranda rights, which inform a suspect that any comments could be used in prosecution.
Attorney Stan Garnett for Marcus and attorney Josh Maximon for Miller tried to establish in Thursday’s hearing that Deputy Josiah Maner kept the defendants at the shooting range for about 69 minutes before releasing them. That qualifies as police custody and the questioning as “custodial interrogation,” the attorneys argued.
“They’re being ordered by an officer to stay where they are at least five times over a 69-minute period,” Maximon said in Thursday’s hearing.
McCollum countered that Maner didn’t detain Miller and Marcus. He didn’t question them for the entire 69 minutes they were all at the shooting range, she said. He also was assessing the rapidly growing fire and coordinating response with fire and other police officials. He was speaking with Miller and Marcus as conditions allowed, she said.
When McCollum asked Maner why he didn’t read them their Miranda rights, he replied Thursday, “They weren’t in custody. I did not restrain them in any way. I did not put them in handcuffs.”
In his order Friday, Dunkelman wrote Maner did not restrain or restrict Miller in any manner, plus he gave him access to move his vehicle.
“Maner was not confrontational or intimidating towards Miller,” the ruling said. “In fact, he was the opposite. He was sympathetic and to a degree supportive of Miller and Marcus.”
None of Maner’s actions “are consistent with a deprivation of freedom to a degree associated with a formal arrest,” the judge wrote.
The judge’s decision will now require the DA’s office to make a tough call. McCollum had filed a motion to combine the trials of Miller and Marcus into one. Dunkelman on Thursday conditionally approved the request. However, he said if they were combined, Miller’s comments couldn’t be used in the joint trial because it would be prejudicial to Marcus. He gave the DA’s office until the beginning of next week to determine if they want to proceed with a combined trial or keep them separate.
Miller and Marcus each face three charges of fourth-degree arson, a Class 4 felony, and setting fire to woods or prairie, a Class 6 felony. Miller and Marcus are free on a $7,500 bond each.
As the cases stand now, Miller’s trial is scheduled for May 28 to June 7 with the trial for Marcus on June 17 to 28.
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