Tanker

A single-engine air tanker, or SEAT plane, drops its payload of fire retardant to contain the blaze on day one of the Lake Christine Fire last summer, which would go on to burn 12,588 acres and destroy three homes. The total bill from the fire exceeded $25 million, as reflected in court documents filed recently. Aircraft operations accounted for 35 percent of the $20 million attributed to the Forest Service.

A court filing involving the two people accused of starting the Lake Christine Fire in July says that witnesses from energy companies and federal agencies may testify that the blaze’s costs exceeded $25 million.

In what is shaping up to be a complex legal saga, prosecutors in February filed a motion to join the cases of Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, who are charged with three felony counts of arson, and have a single trial.

The majority of the amount is $20 million that the filing attributes to the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to fight the fire, which burned three homes and 12,500 acres, forced the evacuation of nearly 2,000 people and 925 homes, and nearly overwhelmed three midvalley communities.

Stan Garnett, the Denver lawyer representing Marcus, is opposing the joinder motion; Miller’s attorney had not, as of Thursday, filed a similar opposition motion. Garnett has also filed a motion that seeks to bar any statements from Miller being used against Marcus. An Eagle County judge will hear arguments on the matters on Thursday.

Joining the defendants’ cases and having one trial makes sense for witnesses and judicial economy, wrote Heidi McCollum, assistant district attorney in the 5th Judicial District, which covers the Eagle County portion of the Roaring Fork Valley.

She argued that “multiple trials will be harmful to the victims in this case. These victims have suffered and continue to suffer the ramifications of having to rebuild, literally, their lives in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Miller and Marcus have pleaded not guilty and have trials set for May 28 to June 7 and June 17-28, respectively. McCollum wrote that her office anticipates an extensive list of victims, first responders and experts — but contended the testimony in each trial “will be substantially similar if not identical.

“To force these victims to testify to the same thing twice, to have to explain the devastating effects of losing their homes and nearly all of their worldly possessions, will serve to re-victimize these individuals,” McCollum’s filing says.

There is also a “significant chance that if these cases are not joined, the likelihood of selecting a jury for a second trial will be nearly impossible in Eagle County,” the prosecutor wrote. “This is a matter of public interest as tens of thousands of Eagle County residents were impacted. This includes Eagle County residents not only in the Roaring Fork Valley, but residents” in the Eagle River and Vail valleys as well. McCollum added that media coverage from Miller’s trial “would severely impact the jury pool for a second trial.”

Her filing has this breakdown of the costs:

  • U.S. Forest Service, estimated costs to fight the fire of $20 million (this is further broken down in the sidebar, see the attached story);

  • Xcel Energy, an estimated $3.4 million in damages and labor to repair and replace power lines;

  • Bureau of Land Management, estimated costs of fire suppression, including labor, aviation and supplies, of over $1.7 million;

  • Holy Cross Energy, estimated costs of $320,000 spent on repairs and labor to re-establish service to affected areas;

  • Black Hills Energy, estimated costs of $149,000;

  • Comcast, with estimated restoration costs of nearly $20,000.

Garnett, in late February, filed a response opposing the motion to join Marcus’ case with that of her boyfriend’s. The filing sheds new light on how the defendants tried to quelch the fire, sparked amid tinder-dry conditions and a Stage 2 fire ban. The attorney argued that evidence admissible in Miller’s trial would not be admissible against Marcus and would be prejudicial against her if introduced in a joint trial.

Marcus, who allegedly admitted she had been shooting a rifle at the Lake Christine gun range, noticed the fire at 5:52 p.m. on July 3. According to authorities, their ammunition included incendiary tracer rounds, which are not allowed at the Basalt range per signs designating rules at the site.

“She immediately called 911 while Mr. Miller and another party attempted to put the fire out with two bottles of Gatorade and a gallon of water,” Garnett’s filing says. “As Mr. Miller and the third party searched in vain for a fire extinguisher or water supply, Ms. Marcus stayed on the phone with 911” until a sheriff’s deputy arrived.

The deputy, 11 minutes later, “finally acknowledged the defendants and asked Ms. Marcus if she called 911,” Garnett wrote. “Audibly distraught, she [confirmed] that she called 911. Other than asking Ms. Marcus what kind of gun she was shooting, this is the only question any law enforcement officer asked [her] prior to the filing of charges.”

During his questioning of Miller and Marcus, the deputy, Josiah Maner, received permission from Miller to inspect the ammunition they had been using.

“Deputy Maner noticed some of the ammunition included tracer rounds and then informed Mr. Miller of the fire ban, which, depending on which source one consults, might (or might not) have prohibited the use of tracer or incendiary rounds,” Garnett wrote.

Maner “then incorrectly transmitted via radio that Mr. Miller and Ms. Marcus just admitted to shooting tracer rounds,” the filing says. “Ms. Marcus did not admit to this and, in fact, never said anything to law enforcement that night, or at any other time, other than a brief written statement and confirming that she called 911.

“In fact, when deputy Maner informed Ms. Marcus and Mr. Miller that tracer rounds were prohibited during the Stage 2 fire ban, Ms. Marcus cried, ‘I wasn’t aware.’”

Prosecutors “have no evidence Ms. Marcus knew of the fire ban, knew what kind of ammunition it prohibited, or knew what kind of ammunition she was shooting.”

Miller’s statements, if admissible — he has filed a motion seeking to suppress what he told law enforcement at the scene shortly after the fire started — would be “extremely prejudicial” against Marcus, Garnett wrote. “For weeks after the fire started, news of the Lake Christine Fire was plastered across Eagle and Pitkin counties. If a jury is allowed to hear the [prosecution’s] evidence against Mr. Miller in a joint trial, there is a strong likelihood the jury will impute Mr. Miller’s knowledge of the fire ban and type of ammunition to Ms. Marcus, even with limiting [jury] instructions.

“In such a high-profile case, where a jury will be pressured to hold someone accountable for the damage caused by the Lake Christine Fire, the court should take every precaution to ensure a fair trial for each defendant.”

Chad is a Contributing Editor for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at chad@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @chad_the_scribe.