Lake Christine Fire defendants plead guilty to misdemeanor, face 45 days in jail and $100k restitution
The Aspen Times
The defendants in the Lake Christine Fire case pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge Wednesday and agreed to a possible sentence that will include 45 days in jail, 1,500 hours of community service, $100,000 each in restitution and five years of probation.
Richard Miller, 24, and Allison Marcus, 23, pleaded guilty to setting fire to woods or prairie. In return, the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s office dismissed three counts of felony arson and amended a felony count of setting fire to woods or prairie to a misdemeanor.
Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum said she talked to the victims of the fire Tuesday night. Three families in the El Jebel area lost their homes in the fire, which burned more than 12,500 acres.
“All of the terms of these plea agreements touch on every one of the concerns of these victims,” McCollum said.
Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman accepted the guilty pleas and conditionally accepted the proposed sentences. He said he wants to give the victims in the case a chance to comment at the sentencing hearing on July 1.
Stan Garnett, attorney for Marcus, said the plea dispositions were “fair.”
“As a matter of fact, it reflects what Allison Marcus said right from the beginning, that this was an accident and she will take responsibility,” he said.
Miller and Marcus were firing weapons at the Basalt shooting range the afternoon of July 3. Marcus was shooting a rifle they borrowed from Miller’s father while Miller was firing a shotgun at the adjacent range. The rifle ammunition they picked up had incendiary tracer rounds.
In a statement written by Marcus and read in court Wednesday by Garnett, Marcus acknowledged she was negligent for not checking what type of ammunition she was firing. She said she believes the use of a tracer round may have started the fire.
The wildland fire broke out shortly after 6 p.m. It eventually charred 12,588 acres of private, state and federal lands.
“I think this plea agreement strikes a balance between accountability and what really happened,” Garnett said.
In a statement written by Miller and read by his attorney, Josh Maximon, Miller acknowledged that the tracer round started the fire. He said he should have checked the ammunition before Marcus fired. By failing to act, he said, he was responsible for the fire.
“He is devastated with his role in causing this terrible fire,” Maximon said. “He wanted to make amends for it and take personal responsibility.”
Garnett noted that Marcus called 911 and stayed on the line with a dispatcher until fire trucks arrived. When talking to investigators that night, she expressed remorse for starting the fire.
“She more than anybody in Eagle County felt horrible about what happened,” Garnett said.
He noted that Marcus intends to remain in the Roaring Fork Valley even though the public is “furious” with her and Miller to show “she cared” and “wanted to make it right.”
She is pursing a career as a chef, Garnett said.
Miller graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in electrical engineering.
Miller and Marcus were well-dressed, as they have been for numerous hearings in the case. They answered the judge’s questions about their understanding of the plea agreement and willingness to plead guilty, but otherwise said little. Garnett said Marcus might read a statement at the sentencing hearing.
McCollum said during the hearing that there were problems with the case that were exposed during pre-trial proceedings and in the process of getting information to the defendants’ attorneys during discovery. She said U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Chris Mandrick undertook a cause and origin report after telling his supervisor he had been asked by other investigating agencies to do the work.
“That was not true,” McCollum said.
The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office asked the Colorado Wildland Fire Management office to undertake the study, she said.
The official report and Mandrick’s report came to different conclusions on the origin, which was one of the problems of the case, McCollum said.
The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office had problems with Mandrick’s conduct early in the investigation and had expressed those concerns in emails, McCollum said. Those emails were apparently destroyed, putting the DA’s office in a tough position. The DA has an obligation to supply the defense with all pertinent information.
“They could certainly bring up a matter of destruction of evidence,” McCollum said.
Another issue was confusion over rules and regulations of a Stage II fire ban and coordination of the rules by various state and federal agencies. McCollum said there has been confusion about the terms of the fire restrictions.
As a whole, the DA’s case was “ultimately compromised” by those issues and others, McCollum said. “Those all sort of go to the strength of the People’s case.”
After the hearing, McCollum said the plea disposition was fair to the victims, the community as a whole and the defendants. When asked by a reporter what she would say to anyone who feels Miller and Marcus are getting off “light,” McCollum responded, “I would say this is a permanent criminal conviction that will always be on their records, they are both somewhat fresh out of college and now basically have a second college debt to pay off (under) the supervision of the court and, thirdly, the community service hours were a really big part of this disposition.”
If they had been convicted of the felony arson charges, they would have been responsible for restitution for the firefighting costs, in excess of $20 million, “which for all practical purposes would never be paid,” she said.
A “more just” sentence is the large amount of community service hours and the $100,000 restitution, McCollum said. She added she rarely has seen cases with 1,500 hours of community service. The type of community service will be worked out with the probation office.
McCollum noted neither Miller nor Marcus have a prior criminal record. That was another reason in favor of the plea deal, she said.
“We don’t want to prosecute cases, we don’t want to punish people, we want to do the right thing,” McCollum said.
After the hearing, Garnett made it clear he felt the charges Marcus initially faced were excessive.
“Allison Marcus is a terrific person,” he said. “For her to have to go through the past 10½ months with four felony charges against her and watching the federal government, the state government, the county government bumble around to try to create a case against her was very frustrating for me as a lawyer.
“What she pled to today is fair,” Garnett continued. “That’s what happened. It’s what she said happened from the beginning, it’s what she told the sheriff’s deputy there. What was disappointing to me was to watch people try to make her a scapegoat and try to turn it into more than it was, in a reaction to the community, and of course the community was frustrated and outraged, I totally understand that. She was always willing to take responsibility for what happened like she did.”
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