Court documents filed by attorneys for the defendants in the Lake Christine Fire show division between the U.S. Forest Service and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office about the investigation into the blaze, with the sheriff declaring at one point that the response deteriorated the relationship between the agencies.
Before Richard Miller and Allison Marcus pleaded guilty Wednesday to a misdemeanor for accidentally igniting the destructive blaze last July, as part of a plea deal that involved three felony arson charges being dismissed, Miller’s lawyer, Josh Maximon of Boulder, filed a motion that sought sanctions against the district attorney’s office. He alleged prosecutors failed to timely produce documents about Chris Mandrick, the Forest Service officer who was the first law enforcement officer to respond to the Basalt-area gun range.
Court exhibits that may have been used at trial, filed with defense motions, include exchanges between Mandrick’s supervisor, Brandon Cervantes, a Forest Service patrol captain, and the DA’s office. Cervantes in one email said Mandrick had been reprimanded for investigating the fire without authority.
Dan Loya, a detective lieutenant with the sheriff’s office who responded to the scene, told Mandrick that the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) would handle the “origin-and-cause investigation,” he wrote in an email to Cervantes.
Loya wrote that he called Mandrick on July 7 “and requested and made explicitly clear he is not to intervene or involve himself with the investigation. According to court filings, Mandrick was told CBI was coming up on Monday, July 9, ‘with their experts to conduct the origin-and-cause investigation,’” Loya’s email says. “Mandrick, trying to justify his rogue investigation, told Captain Cervantes that a CBI investigator authorized him to conduct the cause-and-origin analysis. Later that day, upon being questioned for further details, Mandrick admitted that he had no authority from CBI. In response to being confronted with the lie, Mandrick informed me he made a bad decision and he didn’t expect me [Captain Cervantes] to fall on his sword.”
According to an email from Cervantes, Mandrick’s supervisor, “Mandrick explained to me Lieutenant/Detective Dan Loya was at the range showing the CBI investigators the area. Mandrick informed the CBI and Loya what he observed both as a witness and in conducting the investigation the day prior.
“After doing this Mandrick explained to me he and Loya had a sidebar conversation and Loya began an argument with him,” the report says. “Mandrick explained Loya informed him the feds didn’t need to conduct an investigation. Loya started cursing at him and telling him he may have jeopardized Eagle County’s investigation. Mandrick instructed Loya to call his patrol captain who authorized the investigation. Mandrick then explained to me that he had talked to a CBI investigator on 07/07/18 who informed him to conduct an investigation [because he could not] make it there and the weather was going to change with a chance of heavy rain.”
Mandrick, a Basalt resident, did not respond Thursday to a message for comment. He was not pleased with Loya’s response to him on July 7, believing incoming rain would degrade the crime scene by the time county and/or state investigators arrived. He reached out to CBI — which, in turn, Loya did not appreciate.
A district court judge recently ruled that an unofficial sign denoting a prohibition on incendiary tracer rounds at the Basalt gun range where the blaze originated could not be used as evidence at trial, as it was not a state-sanctioned rule. Other rulings that also favored the defense, citing the governmental infighting, would have likely led to questions for a jury about Mandrick’s actions.
Marcus and Miller on Wednesday pleaded guilty to starting the Lake Christine Fire as part of an agreement with prosecutors that will see them both serve 45 days in jail, pay $100,000 in restitution, and complete 1,500 hours of community service and five years of probation.
Seeing the forest for the pleas
In response to pretrial requests of evidence by the defense, the Forest Service produced, among other documents, a “memorandum of interview” of Mandrick that includes texts to Cervantes. One says: “So Eagle County hasn’t done a C & O [cause-and-origin report], nor have they secured anything. The fire has now burned FS land, and talking with the ECSO detective LT [Loya] just now he was totally dismissive of any involvement by me. They are planning to come out Monday. Can you have Kent talk to the Sheriff and shore that up? I made it clear I don't want to take the lead, only want to help with the C & O part of this.”
Cervantes responded: “Yeah it's a bit slippery at this point. I would do our protocol to cover our end. If they screw the pooch on their investigation... at least we did our due diligence.
“Ultimately, when shit was hitting the fan... I'm sure it was the last thing to think that range was a crime scene to a deputy,” he wrote.
“It was rather mellow the first night, and the detective lieutenant was on [scene] that evening. I gave him my card and offered to help in any way.
“Fast forward to this evening, no evidence has been collected nor has anything been picked up and looked at, so I am in a bit of a pickle,” Mandrick wrote. “If we get a big thunderstorm it will totally destroy the origin, so I will do my due diligence and [conduct the] investigation tomorrow.”
Mike McWilliam, Eagle County’s undersheriff, said Thursday that the concern about rain washing away evidence at the gun range was unfounded — forecasted rain showers never happened — and that Loya had ample cause to ask Mandrick to step away.
“We did not want to have two [separate] investigations” involving the Forest Service and the CBI and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office because the result would be problematic for prosecutors, he said.
“We’re very glad it didn’t end up in a Paradise, California, situation,” McWilliam said, referencing the fire that killed at least 85 people and is the most destructive in that state’s history. McWilliam also said his office’s relationship with the Forest Service remains solid.
The head of the Forest Service’s White River National Forest District referred inquiries to Ken Pearson, a regional patrol commander. Regarding the Lake Christine Fire, which eventually spread onto federal land, “the Forest Service had a dog in this fight,” he said.
“We’re obviously very strong believers in cooperating with state and regional folks,” Pearson said. “Sometimes people have different perceptions.”