Heidi McCollum’s political fortunes could be influenced by whether residents of Basalt and El Jebel credit her as the prosecutor who got a conviction in the Lake Christine Fire case or criticize her for not seeking a stricter sentence.
McCollum is running for 5th Judicial District Attorney in the June 30 Democratic primary. Her opponent is Braden Angel.
Current District Attorney Bruce Brown cannot run again because of term limits after serving two terms.
The primary race could be for all the marbles. The Republican Party did not field a candidate in the primary and cannot appoint one for the general election, according to Eagle County Clerk and Recorder Regina O’Brien. A write-in candidate could emerge for the GOP for the general election, she said. An unaffiliated candidate could also theoretically enter the race.
As it stands, the Democratic primary between McCollum and Angel has elevated importance because it could determine who oversees the sprawling district that includes Eagle, Lake, Summit and Clear Creek counties. The 5th Judicial District Attorney’s office oversees prosecution of criminal cases in the Basalt and El Jebel area.
McCollum, 49, is an Eagle County native and has lived in Eagle most of her life. She has served as assistant district attorney in the 5th Judicial District since January 2013, when Brown took office.
Angel, 39, of Eagle-Vail, was a deputy district attorney in the 5th Judicial District from October 2007 through October 2012. He is now the municipal prosecutor in the town of Blue River near Breckenridge and in private practice.
McCollum handled the cases of Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, the couple convicted of starting the Lake Christine Fire on July 3, 2018, at the Basalt shooting range. The fire destroyed three homes, burned more than 12,500 acres and made the summer miserable for thousands of midvalley residents due to evacuations and months-long poor air quality.
In a plea disposition, Miller and Marcus pleaded guilty to setting fire to woods or prairie, a class two misdemeanor. Three charges of felony arson were dismissed by the DA’s office. Miller and Marcus were each sentenced to 45 days in jail, 1,500 hours of use public service, $100,000 in restitution and five years of probation.
McCollum said high-profile cases always bring out different perspectives. That was magnified by the Lake Christine Fire case because it affected so many people and cost the federal government $30 million to fight.
“In a perfect world, do I want someone after burning down three people’s homes, do I want someone to go to prison for that? Part of me says yeah, you burned down three people’s homes. You deserve an incredibly harsh sentence, without question,” McCollum said.
But she also believes the punishment was appropriate because it set restitution that can realistically be collected and requires the defendants to complete an “exorbitant amount” of useful public service.
Miller has repaid nearly $26,000 of his restitution, she said, while Marcus has paid about $17,000. If the total amount isn’t repaid by the end of their five-year probationary period, McCollum would extend probation until it is paid, she said.
The 1,500 hours of use public service translates into 37½ weeks of working 40 hours per week to give back to the community.
“I felt that frankly that was a better remedy for everyone,” McCollum said.
She said that no conscientious district attorney could claim to have the best solution all the time. But they take each case and weigh a variety of factors to pursue what they feel is the best path.
“There was no intent on either of these individuals’ parts to start a fire and disrupt thousands and thousands of peoples’ daily lives and scar the landscape and cause all that damage,” McCollum said. “Their behavior was negligent. They’re behavior was completely inappropriate. They’re behavior was selfish.”
She feels the plea deal and sentence were best for moving past the fire.
“At the end of the day, communities don’t just need defendants to be punished,” she said. “Communities need to be able to heal. These two individuals are paying their debt to society. They are doing what the courts told them to do.”
Angel said it was difficult for him to answer if the punishment fit the crime in the Lake Christine Fire case because he wasn’t privy to all the information the district attorney’s office had.
“However, I think with the significance of the crime that was committed and the damages that resulted from that crime, I’m not confident saying that the sentence was adequate given the danger that was present,” Angel said. “There were a lot of community members in the El Jebel, Missouri Heights area that were very, very affected by the fire. I’m a big proponent of the community service aspect. I think that’s wonderful. I do think a very large number of hours for this type of offense is absolutely appropriate.”
Given the dry conditions at the time of the fire, it wasn’t appropriate for anyone to be firing ammunition of any type at the shooting range, let alone tracer rounds, he said.
“I don’t know that it was adequately taken into consideration,” he said. “I don’t know that a careless mistake really sums up the actions of those individuals. I think it was reckless, what was going on at the shooting range that day and that reckless behavior put many lives in jeopardy. I think that a more punitive sentence on that particular crime may have been warranted but I don’t have all of that information that the DA’s office had.”
Angel said there needed to be a deterrent factor in the case. Marcus and Miller probably have “learned their lesson” and aren’t going to commit another crime, but a message was also necessary.
“We don’t want someone who sees this to say, ‘Oh, well, they just got a slap on the wrist. I’m going to go out and shot my rounds whenever I want, whatever the fire danger is, high or low.’ We want to make sure people are considering that because those actions can have a terribly, terribly detriment and horrific impact on our community,” Angel said.
The candidates expressed similar positions on a variety of general issues. Angel said ideally the district would have a “behavioral health court” that could tap into resources when there is a mental health issue involved. He said he helped get special DUI and drug courts started when he worked in the DA’s office.
“I do think that substance abuse and behavioral health need to be decriminalized,” he said.
Research shows there are fewer repeat offenders when mental health and substance abuse are issues and the focus is on rehabilitation rather than incarceration, he said.
McCollum’s campaign literature also calls for “treatment, not jail time, for those struggling with mental health and addiction.”