EAGLE — The U.S. Forest Service, investigating the conduct of one its law enforcement officers immediately after the Lake Christine Fire started last summer, has refused to turn over his personnel file to the district attorney’s office, prosecutors told a judge Thursday.
It was the latest development — along with a defense attorney saying he intends to file for sanctions against the prosecution related to allegations of “destruction of evidence” by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office — that may end up postponing the trials of Richard Miller and Allison Marcus. They each face four felony counts related to the July fire that destroyed three homes, burned roughly 12,500 acres and forced thousands to evacuate.
During a hearing Thursday in Eagle County District Court, lawyers for the defendants said the DA’s office had, only Wednesday evening, disclosed to them, as part of the pretrial exchange of information known as discovery, emails about Chris Mandrick, a Forest Service law enforcement officer who was one of the first authorities to respond to the scene. The messages in question apparently were between Dan Loyo, a lieutenant with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, and a regional official with the Forest Service. The email exchange, not yet public, included Loyo cursing about Mandrick’s conduct in the aftermath of the fire. That’s according to statements made in open court Thursday about access to such documents.
Six days after the fire, Mandrick allegedly told a trainee investigator with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control:
“These two [Miller and Marcus] need to pay for this ... this is in my back yard.”
That revealed “his strong bias” against the defendants, wrote Stan Garnett, the attorney who represents Allison Marcus.
Mandrick also chastised state law enforcement officers for not collecting evidence or preserving the scene at the Lake Christine gun range — to the point that deputy Josiah Maner of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office “returned to the roped-off crime scene to collect what he believed to be evidence around midnight on July 7,” a defense filing says.
It continues: “On his own prompting and without authorization, officer Mandrick provided an expert report regarding the cause and origin of the Lake Christine Fire. In drafting that report, officer Mandrick jeopardized the integrity of the scene.”
A judge has yet to rule on whether Mandrick can testify.
Contacted after the hearing, Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, referred an inquiry about the allegation to a regional law enforcement officer who did not respond by Thursday evening.
On April 17, the day before a motions hearing, prosecutors via email told Miller’s attorney, Josh Maximon, that they had learned Mandrick received “a formal written discipline for his behavior and for dishonesty in relation to the investigation of this case,” Maximon wrote in the filing. Prosecutors “relied upon the interview with officer Mandrick, his report, as well as pictures Mandrick had taken himself during his investigation and subsequently showed” to the prosecution.
Miller’s trial is set to start May 28, with Marcus’ to follow on June 17. Judge Paul Dunkelman of Eagle County District Court, acknowledging unusual frustration so close to trial on all sides, told the attorneys that before jurors are seated, “it’s certain there’s a flurry of activity that I’ll have to unwind.” That’s in addition to the DA’s petition to the Colorado Supreme Court — set to be filed Tuesday, according to Heidi McCollum, assistant district attorney — about an issue involving the admissibility of evidence related to signage at the gun range.
Judge Dunkelman said he intends to wait until Tuesday but will approve the stay upon that filing and await the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case or not. The judge, defense and prosecution all agreed that when that decision may occur is far from certain — and the judge said he would give it until next Friday afternoon. If there is no word from the state high court by then, he said he will likely send jurors home when jury selection would otherwise begin the following Monday.
That is but one of several issues that need to be decided ahead of trial — and another is Maximon’s filing for his client that says the Forest Service’s Mandrick was the first law enforcement officer on the scene at the gun range.
“Officer Mandrick has been very involved in many major parts of this case and this investigation,” the defense filing says, noting the Forest Service officer provided an “expert cause and origin report, and was interviewed by other experts in performing their own cause and origin analyses.
“In addition, he chastised state law enforcement officers for not collecting evidence [nor] preserving the scene.”