Affidavit: Arson suspect in Basalt fire initially denied firing tracer rounds

An felony arrest warrant affidavit made public Monday alleges that El Jebel residents Richard Miller, 23, and Sarah Marcus, 22, fired shots July 3 at the Basalt shooting range resulting in a fire that destroyed three homes with a combined value of $2.65 million. Pictured is one of the remnants of one of the homes on Lava Drive that burned to the ground.
Rick Carroll/The Aspen Times

One of the two people suspected of firing tracer rounds at the Basalt gun range initially denied having done so, but admitted to authorities he was aware a Stage 2 fire ban was in effect but believed it applied only to fires and fireworks.

An arrest warrant affidavit filed Friday and made public Monday by the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which includes Eagle County, shed details on the events leading to what now are pending charges of fourth-degree arson, a Class Four felony, and firing woods or prairie, a Class Six felony.

“The District Attorney’s Office expects that the persons named in the warrant will be surrendering on the warrant be week’s end,” DA Bruce Brown said in a statement. “At this time, the charges contained in the warrant are not formal charges.”

The suspects, Richard Miller, 23, and Sarah Marcus, 22, both live in the El Jebel area. A judge set the bonds at $7,500 each. The two were originally charged with misdemeanors related to the fire.

“At one point they were in the evacuation area,” Eagle County Sheriff James Van Beek said of the suspects.

Authorities have said the Lake Christine Fire, which broke out July 3, was caused by the firing of tracer rounds at the gun range, which is located just outside of Basalt town limits. As of Monday evening, the fire spanned 6,100 acres and was 39 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Three homes also were destroyed.

“They were using tracer ammunition — prohibited during Eagle County’s current Stage 2 Fire Restrictions Order as well as prohibited by the shooting range,” according to a statementfrom the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. “Allegedly, one of the tracer rounds ignited vegetation in the surrounding area starting the fire.”

The gun range also prohibits the firing of tracer rounds year round, whether fire restrictions are in place, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which operates the Basalt range.

“Any kind of incendiary rounds are prohibited at all” gun ranges managed by CPW, spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell said.

The two people suspects initially were approached at the gun range at 5:59 p.m. — five minutes after Pitkin County dispatch sent notice that a fire had possibly originated at the gun range — by an Eagle County deputy and an off-duty Forest Service officer, according to the affidavit, which was written by Eagle County detective Aaron Veldheer.

Marcus told the authorities that she “caused it and was sorry. Marcus said she called into 911 to report the fire,” the affidavit says.

Marcus said she had been shooting a rifle, while Miller said he was firing a shotgun.

“Deputy (Josiah) Maner asked Miller what kind of rounds they were shooting,” the affidavit says. “Miller claimed not to know. Deputy Maner asked Miller if he was shooting incendiary rounds, such as tracers. Miller stated no. I asked Miller if he was shooting at exploding targets such as Tannerite or paper. Miller stated paper.”

The deputy asked those questions, the affidavit notes, because “these items are prohibited from use during a Stage 2 fire restriction.”

As the deputy sorted through the suspects’ firearms and ammunition — the search was consensual, the affidavit says — Miller admitted to firing tracer rounds.

Miller told authorities he was aware of the fire ban but said the signs indicating such on Two Rivers Road and Highway 82 near Original Road “only read fires and fireworks were prohibited.” The deputy subsequently seized the firearms, which included a shotgun, a .308 caliber rifle and ammunition, to be placed into evidence, the affidavit says.

The combined value of the three destroyed homes is $2.65 million, according to the affidavit.

According to Colorado statutes, fourth-degree arson can rise to a Class Four felony “if a person is thus endangered.” With a conviction, the charge carries a prison term of two to six years with three years of mandatory parole.

The Class Six felony charge of firing woods or prairie is when a person “knows or reasonably should know that he or she violates any applicable order, rule, or regulation lawfully issued by a governmental authority that prohibits, bans, restricts, or otherwise regulates fires during periods of extreme fire hazard and that is designed to promote the safety of persons and property,” according to statutes.

“At this time, the Lake Christine Fire is actively burning and the subject of an ongoing investigation,” Brown’s statement said. “Once the investigation is more well developed, the district attorney will be able to determine with better certainty the perimeters of charges.”