Gerbaz pleads not guilty to arson for Carbondale-area wildfire
December 11, 2008
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Larry Gerbaz pleaded not guilty Thursday to arson charges in connection with a wildfire outside of Carbondale last spring.
Gerbaz entered his plea in Garfield County District Court. His attorney, Thomas Silverman, requested a jury trial after Gerbaz declined to accept a plea bargain offered by the district attorney’s office. Silverman wouldn’t disclose terms of that offer after the hearing, and he declined to outline evidence that supports his client’s case because of the pending trial.
“Let me put it this way ” the not-guilty plea says it all,” Silverman said.
The wildfire broke out April 15 along County Road 100, also known as Catherine Store Road, about 2 miles east of Carbondale. Flames whipped by heavy winds ultimately threatened 150 homes, firefighters estimated. Three houses were slightly damaged, and landscaping was charred around several more.
An angler fishing in the Roaring Fork River and creeks near the Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision was overcome by the flames and suffered severe burns to his left hand and lesser burns to other parts of his body.
After weeks of researching the case, prosecutors filed two counts of fourth-degree arson against Gerbaz on July 31. One arson charge is a felony because of the injuries suffered by the fisherman, Larry Garfinkel. The other arson charge is a misdemeanor connected to the property damage.
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Garfinkel filed a lawsuit this fall against Gerbaz seeking unspecified damages for his injuries. The suit said he is still being treated for burns and undergoing rehabilitation. Authorities said the wildfire started at 1265 County Road 100, the address for a ranch in the Gerbaz family. Larry Gerbaz lives next door.
Gerbaz told investigators he burned a wood pile in a pasture on the ranch the weekend prior to the wildfire, according to reports filed by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. He said he took numerous precautions to control the burn. He scratched a fire break around the wood pile and doused the embers once the flames died down.
The wildfire broke out the following Tuesday. Investigators suspect that high winds kicked up sparks from the wood pile. Those sparks ignited fires in dry grass, and the flames raced to the east and northeast.
Gerbaz and his wife, Molly, told deputies they saw other people overseeing controlled burns in their neighborhood the morning that the wildfire broke out. Burning dry grass is common in the spring, particularly along irrigation ditches.
Silverman previously said his investigator was interviewing residents of the area about those other controlled burns. He declined Thursday to discuss his investigator’s findings. Gerbaz wasn’t required to say anything at Thursday’s hearing.
Silverman told a judge that a two-week jury trial will be required for the case because of its complexity and the number of witnesses who are likely be called to the stand.
The district attorney’s office has listed about 25 potential witnesses; Silverman said he will call a similar number.
Finding 12 Garfield County residents who haven’t formed an opinion about the case based on their personal experiences or extensive media coverage also will be difficult, Silverman said.
No trial date was set. A hearing was scheduled Jan. 27 to set the date.