EAGLE — Allison Marcus and Richard Miller, on Wednesday, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for starting the Lake Christine Fire as part of a plea agreement 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.
Days before Miller’s trial was to begin, the Roaring Fork Valley residents said in Eagle County District Court that they were guilty of “setting on fire a woods or prairie,” an official charge that involves a factor of criminal negligence. In exchange, prosecutors dismissed three felony arson charges against each defendant.
Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum told Judge Paul Dunkelman that her office encountered multiple problems that would have made proving the initial felony charges very difficult. The fire that started July 3 scorched nearly 12,600 acres, destroyed three homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of midvalley residents.
Attorneys for Miller and Marcus told the judge that the plea deal was fair, and that their clients are extremely remorseful. Both defendants quietly answered Judge Dunkelman’s questions before entering their pleas.
Defense attorney Josh Maximon, representing Miller, read to the judge his client’s statement about why he was pleading guilty:
“On July 3, 2018, I drove to the Lake Christie shooting range in Basalt. Allison Marcus accompanied me … En route to the shooting range, we passed at least one highway mobile message board indicating that a Stage II fire restriction was in effect in Eagle County. At the shooting range, I carried the rifle and a duffel bag full of shooting supplies. I assisted Allison Marcus in getting ready to shoot by placing staples in a staple gun that is used for securing the paper target.
“I was negligent when I failed to look inside the ammunition canister prior to going to the range and prior to Allison’s shooting of the rifle,” Miller wrote. “This was a huge mistake. If I had done so, I would have been able to identify the tracer-round ammunition before the fire ever started.”
Marcus fired the round that ignited the blaze while Miller was in the separate space at the range reserved for shotguns.
“By failing to act, I am responsible for the fire,” Miller wrote.
The judge set sentencing for July 1 at 1:30 p.m. to allow victims and relatives of the defendants to speak.
Prosecution faced hurdles with sign, key witness
The prosecutorial problems included Judge Dunkelman excluding from evidence any mention at trial of an unofficial sign posted at the Basalt-area gun range that prohibits the firing of tracer rounds. The defense argued the sign, posted by a private gun group that operates a portion of the range, did not constitute a lawful prohibition and that signs posted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which runs the range’s public side, had no such rule.
Prosecutors last week told the judge they intended to appeal his ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court, but McCollum said in an interview Tuesday that trying to get the high court to consider her office’s petition — and the judges possibly reversing the lower court — were both long shots.
Another issue was a key witness for the prosecution, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer Chris Mandrick. The DA’s office provided to the defense documents showing that Mandrick, who lives in Basalt and was the first officer to respond to the fire and talk to the defendants, improperly undertook an investigation into its cause, lied about who ordered him to do so and was reprimanded. Maximon filed a motion for sanctions, claiming the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office “was aware that officer Mandrick’s actions jeopardized the criminal investigation and responded by deliberately covering up [his] actions.”
The sanctions motion alleged that authorities had destroyed evidence.
Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek, after attending a hearing last week, said he had “no idea what the [defense] allegation is.” McCollum said her office disagreed with the defense’s characterization.
A detective lieutenant with the sheriff’s office told her that he could not turn over an email exchange he had with a Forest Service supervisor because he had dropped and damaged his phone. And prosecutors had trouble obtaining from the Forest Service other documents, including Mandrick’s employment file, because the federal agency apparently deemed it to be a personnel matter. McCollum told the judge she had no way to force the Forest Service to turn over such documents, which led to the defense contention that prosecutors should be sanctioned because the DA’s office violated rules related to producing pretrial evidence known as discovery.
McCollum reiterated after Wednesday’s hearing that the plea agreements were appropriate.
“We want to make sure we prosecute for the right reason, and I think that this plea disposition actually allows a fair outcome for not only the victims but the defendants and the community as a whole,” she said.
Miller and Marcus now have a permanent criminal conviction on their records, and both defendants, fresh out of college — Miller and Marcus, after obtaining degrees in electrical engineering and culinary arts, respectively, had come to the valley just days before the fire started — “have basically a second college debt to pay off,” McCollum said of restitution.
She added that the community-service component — she and Marcus’ attorney, Stan Garnett, said they knew of no other cases involving so much community service — was another significant part of the plea agreements. Had they been convicted at trial of even just the count of setting on fire a woods or prairie, they would have been on the hook for the estimated $20 million in damages that the Lake Christine Fire caused.
That amount, “for all practical purposes, would have never been paid,” McCollum said. “Is that fair to put a $20 million-plus debt on someone that won’t go away? That’s not justice. What’s more just is that community-service component.”
After the hearing, Garnett, as he told Judge Dunkelman, again said Marcus is a “terrific person. For her to have to go through the last 10-and-a-half 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 said, adding that his client never wavered from her first statement that she accidentally sparked the fire. “What’s disappointing to me was to watch people try to make her a scapegoat and to try to turn this into more than it was in reaction to the community.
“And of course the community was frustrated and outraged, I totally understand that,” he continued. “She was always willing to take responsibility for what happened. This is a lot of community service, and she’s going to put her heart into it and do it right.”
Maximon, standing next to Miller, declined comment.
Garnett said the defendants will likely be discussing with the probation department how best to complete the community service.
“Obviously anything we can do that’s related to the forest or fire prevention, that kind of thing … but it’s a lot of community service [so] they’re just going to have to get to work and do whatever’s available,” he said. “I hope the community understands that she means it when she says she wants to make this right.”