Investigators’ credibility challenged in arson trial
August 15, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The lead investigator of the County Road 100 wildfire in April 2008 testified Friday that she had thought the blaze was an accident and that charges wouldn’t be filed.
Det. Meghan Alstatt of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office said she investigated the site where the fire was initially reported and found consistency between witnesses’ accounts and evidence she viewed. She said she concluded the fire started on property overseen by Larry Gerbaz, but that it wasn’t maliciously or intentionally set with the goal to “burn down Garfield County.” Therefore, she said, she didn’t feel a first-degree arson charge was warranted against Gerbaz.
The Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s Office came to a different conclusion. Prosecutors on July 18 charged Gerbaz with two counts of fourth-degree arson. They reasoned that intent wasn’t a necessary ingredient for the charge. Alstatt said she was unaware for about six weeks that Gerbaz had been charged.
Gerbaz’s legal team, attorneys Tom Silverman and Joe Kirwin, tried to use her testimony as part of their effort to discredit the investigation. Kirwin grilled Alstatt on why she focused solely on Gerbaz’s controlled burn. Testimony indicated she received leads that there were other controlled burns on the days immediately before and the day of the wildfire. She said she didn’t investigate if those other fires were the possible sources because it was evident that the Gerbaz property was the origin.
The defense’s strategy has been consistent throughout the first four days of the trial. Silverman and Kirwin are trying to plant seeds in the minds of jurors that the fire could have started elsewhere and ignited wood and vegetation on Gerbaz’s ranch at 1265 County Road 100. Silverman said investigators had “tunnel vision” and were targeting Gerbaz as a scapegoat.
Deputy District Attorney Ed Veronda relied on testimony from firefighters and neighbors to try to build a case that the fire started on Gerbaz’s ranch. After a string of about 10 witnesses, he called Alstatt and Garfield County Deputy Sheriff Eric “Smokey” Torres to the stand Friday.
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Alstatt said burn marks on the ground spread east from where Gerbaz burned a large pile of wood in a pasture on Saturday, April 12. That was consistent with the prevailing direction of heavy winds that numerous witnesses said were blowing the day of the fire. The sheriff’s office concluded that high winds on April 15 revived Gerbaz’s fire ashes and spread sparks and embers.
Alstatt said she found soot on barbed wire strands that indicated the fire started in the Gerbaz pasture. Witnesses she interviewed said they saw wood piles burning unattended in the Gerbaz pasture starting Saturday, April 12.
Torres investigated the fire after firefighters gained the upper hand the night of April 15. He said he interviewed Gerbaz, who told him he didn’t believe the fire originated at his controlled burn “but he wasn’t sure.”
Gerbaz told investigators he took precautions with his burn and made sure it was extinguished once the fuel turned to ash.
Veronda is saving what will likely be the most dramatic testimony for last. He plans to call Larry Garfinkel to the stand Monday. Garfinkel was fishing near the Ranch at Roaring Fork when he was overtaken by fast-moving flames. His left hand was severely burned, and he submerged himself in a creek to escape possible death.
One of the arson charges against Gerbaz is a felony because of the injury to Garfinkel.
The trial is scheduled to continue through next week.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A witness in the Larry Gerbaz arson trial was accused Friday of defying a judge’s order to avoid talking to other witnesses about the case.
Carrie Katsis allegedly told another witness after testifying Wednesday that Gerbaz’s lawyer was trying to “blame her” for setting a wildfire in April 2008, according to testimony from another witness Friday.
Gerbaz is charged with two counts of arson for accidentally causing that fire, which threatened scores of homes, damages three houses and burned a man.
Katsis and her mother, Renae Taylor, live adjacent to Gerbaz. They testified Wednesday that they saw a wood pile smoldering in Gerbaz’s pasture, with no one attending it, two days before the wild fire. When both Katsis and Taylor were on the stand, Gerbaz’s attorney, Tom Silverman, suggested their own controlled burn on Sunday, April 13, might have been responsible for the wildfire on April 15.
When Katsis left the witness stand Wednesday and left the courtroom, she saw another witness in the hall and allegedly told him that Silverman was trying to blame her for the fire. That witness, Mal Lent, recounted the exchange Friday when he was called to testify in the case.
Garfield County District Judge Daniel Petre reminds each witness when they leave the stand that they cannot talk about the case with other witnesses. He didn’t indicate Friday if he will seek action against Katsis.
Silverman declined comment during a break in the trial if he would seek sanctions against Katsis. It couldn’t be determined how he learned about the allegedly comment by Katsis.