When Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers held a reseeding effort on Basalt Mountain last June, one might have assumed that Richard Miller and Allison Marcus — who sparked last year’s Lake Christine Fire that scorched the area — would be among the nearly 300 participants.
And Miller would have loved to have been there, had he known about the opportunity.
“I would like to do more,” he said of his current community service work. “I’m sad we missed the seeding. I don’t read the paper, so I missed a whole seeding on Basalt Mountain. I heard about it afterward and was like, ‘It would have been good if we were there.’”
Fortunately, it won’t be the only opportunity to work directly on Basalt Mountain, according to chief probation officer Wendy Slavin.
“Efforts to reseed and plant trees are being planned for the spring 2020,” she said in an email, adding that “Ms. Marcus indicated she looks forward to helping with those community projects.”
The Lake Christine Fire that ravaged more than 12,500 acres of mostly backcountry land near Basalt and destroyed three homes, of course, was the focus of numerous articles from every newspaper in the Roaring Fork Valley. Subsequently, there were guilty pleas and sentencing hearings for Miller, 24, and Marcus, 23, that garnered yet more press coverage. Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman ordered each defendant to serve 45 days in jail, 1,500 hours of community service and pay $100,000 in restitution to the three families who lost their homes.
Miller was, understandably, hesitant to sit down for an interview at the Third Street Center coffee shop in Carbondale. He was in the middle of a shift at Lift-Up, the food bank in the same building, where he spends most Wednesdays. (Marcus was visiting family in Maryland on Wednesday and was unavailable for comment.)
“We’re just working hard,” he said, adding that since mid-August, he’s served 120 hours of community service. Most of those hours have been at Lift-Up and Cornerstone Christian Center, a nondenominational church in Basalt. Additionally, they’ve worked with the outdoor volunteers and the Salvation Army, though in more limited capacities.
“I got out of jail the beginning of August,” he said. “It took a couple of weeks of settling back in and finding the work. Probation doesn’t find you the hours, you have to find them yourself. Pretty much, Lift-Up was the first place I got work. I literally was spending, that one day, five hours just calling everywhere.”
Dunkelman only had one real restriction when sentencing Marcus and Miller — the public service had to be related to “some form of impact from this fire.”
Lift-Up, which is headquartered in Rifle but has seven food pantries from Aspen to Parachute, meets that requirement, Executive Director Angela Mills noted.
“Our communities were impacted by the fire, and we were able to respond in almost real-time and open our food stores and provide clothing and household goods to the people who were affected by the fire,” she said. “I think especially where they are in Carbondale, they’re definitely going to be able to touch some families that were touched by that fire.”
That is, after all, the point of community service as restorative justice, she continued.
“In my opinion, they made a horrible series of decisions [and this was the outcome],” she said. “So now, if we’re able to help them get back on a possibly better road, that’s what we should be doing.”
Longtime Lift-Up volunteer Glee Doyle — who in some respects serves as Marcus’ and Miller’s unofficial supervisor — agrees with that sentiment.
“My neighbor was closer than a football field from flames. It was awful, but it’s been adjudicated,” she said. “If you are someone who believes in the law, you may or may not like it, [but] they’ve been told what they need to do, and as far as I know, they are complying, and that’s important to me.”
That doesn’t mean it’s been completely smooth sailing — an internal email obtained by the Aspen Daily News from another Lift-Up volunteer aired a few grievances and accusations at the pair.
“I think we all appreciate how they have worked to organize the pantry and how Richard particularly has pitched in to recycle boxes, take out compost, trash, etc. HOWEVER…,” it starts.
It then goes on to allege that Marcus and Miller have taken food after their shifts — which is not explicitly against protocol, the same email acknowledges.
“Regular volunteers occasionally take home one or two things at the end of the day if they’re not given away or if there is a lot of that item,” it reads. “This is supposed to be their way of atoning for what they did. It is not a situation for them to benefit and get free food! They should not be allowed to take anything!”
But Doyle and other volunteers don’t share those concerns.
“That is one person’s opinion,” she said of the email. “... They have not done, in my opinion, one thing that they weren’t asked to do and/or given permission to do. They’ve done excellent work.”
Miller, too, was already familiar with the email in question.
“She’s literally the only one that’s had a problem with us. If they really didn’t like us working there, we wouldn’t be working there,” he said.
Still, to avoid any conflicts, Miller said he and Marcus no longer work the same day as the author of the email.
Being headquartered in Rifle, Mills was not familiar with any tension among volunteers regarding Marcus and Miller working some of their community service hours there, but she didn’t think it would become a major issue.
“Our volunteers are so valued, and we love them so much,” she said. “And we also value our community service program. I’m just positive that there is a way that we can make this work for our volunteers and maintain our community service program at the same time.”
And it’s not just a matter of spreading the love, Mills added. Creating volunteer opportunities for everyone is a matter of principle for her.
“Lift Up is here to help people, regardless of circumstance or what you’ve done,” she said. “I think we have to treat our community service people with that same amount of dignity and respect: You’re human; you’re deserving of respect. You’re paying back a debt; we're here to help you do that.”
Paying their dues
As for the work itself, Miller gets some enjoyment from interacting with the community.
“I like the work — [there are] tons of nice people, and I feel needed and I am being helpful,” he said.
Still, it’s very much a sentence. Miller never planned to stay in the Roaring Fork Valley for more than a summer. Now, he’s unable to leave in the near future.
“I was just expecting to take a summer break out here, basically. I just graduated from the University of Maryland for electrical engineering, and there are no real engineering jobs in the valley,” he said. “My service hours are required to be served in the valley. It’s not like, ‘I hate these hours, I want to get them over with.’ I kind of just want to move on with my life.”
When they’re not at Lift-Up, Miller and Marcus are typically at Cornerstone.
“That was actually through [Marcus]; she was just calling around,” Miller said. “That was the second wave of calls, and it was the only one that returned a call out of all of the churches. So it was a church day of calling. So we went over there, and of course they know who we are. In their words, they’re ‘protective of us.’ They’re very nice people; very loving.”
Marcus, who has experience as a barista, and Miller spend most of their time at Cornerstone working the church’s coffee shop and cleaning the sanctuary, Miller said.
“My favorite part of working there is they have some electrical issues, so I can actually apply my skills there a little bit,” he chuckled. “They have noise that comes through the speakers. They let me poke around a little bit.”
In addition to the public service hours, Miller’s also acutely aware of the impacts of the 8 percent interest on the $100,000 restitution order toward which he currently makes $200 monthly payments.
“[It] turns out to be almost $700 a month,” he said of the interest alone. “It’s also a tossup because you have a probation officer pushing us to do all these hours, but really, the hours don’t acquire interest.”
Miller and Marcus both have five years of probation and, in turn, five years to repay restitution before it’s converted to a civil judgment. The collections investigator reviews the payment plan every six months and determines what constitutes a reasonable payment according to income. That is to say, should Marcus or Miller attain higher-paying income, their monthly payments would increase accordingly.
Miller is taking it day by day, clocking as many service hours as he can so that he can pursue that higher-paying career.
“Computer engineering,” he said of his ideal industry. “Or I’d like to get into RF engineering, like radio signals and wireless stuff — but the equipment to play around with is more expensive. One day. I’m trying to make as much money as I can, living as cheaply as I can for now.”
‘There’s a fire!’
Of course, Miller can’t talk about the realities of his and Marcus’ sentences without also revisiting what happened that July day last year.
“The truth of the matter is, it wasn’t my gun or ammo. It was my father’s,” he recalled. “There was regular ammo and tracer ammo — and I’d never seen the tin of tracer ammo before, and it looked exactly like the tin of regular ammo.”
He helped Marcus get situated in the rifle range, then headed to the shotgun range for his own shooting, he said. He didn’t realize at the time that the rifle was being loaded with tracer rounds.
“Next thing I know, I get a phone call from [Marcus]: ‘There’s a fire!’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean there’s a fire?’ Honestly, there is a slight difference to the tip of the [tracer] bullet, but if you’re just putting bullets in the gun, you’re not really thinking about it. I knew she knew how to load a gun because we’d been there before, but I don’t know if she really had enough experience with the tracers to understand,” he said.
He said when police arrived on the scene and asked him if he knew about the tracer rounds, he answered affirmatively. But he only realized what had happened after the fire broke out.
“What I said basically was that I knew they were tracer rounds, but not beforehand,” he said. “The cop was asking me and I was like, ‘Yeah, they’re tracer rounds.’ I figured it out, but they were trying to turn it around, saying that I knew they were tracer rounds prior to [the fire].”
That doesn’t mean Miller isn’t remorseful for what he described as a “really bad accident.” By the end of Wednesday’s interview, he had tears in his eyes.
“It’s hard for me to talk about,” he said with a sigh. “I really do understand. I wish it didn’t happen. There’s nothing I can do, and I really do feel terrible. I am sorry.”