Jury finds Gerbaz not guilty in Carbondale arson trial
August 21, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A jury ruled Friday that Larry Gerbaz was not guilty of two counts of fourth-degree arson in connection to the County Road 100 wildfire east of Carbondale in April 2008.
The jury required a little less than three hours to reach the verdict after being bombarded with testimony for 7 1/2 days. Gerbaz, 61, hugged members of his defense team, then celebrated with about 10 members of his family. Gerbaz had a private conversation with the prosecutor in the case, then told him, “No hard feelings,” as he exited the courtroom.
Tom Silverman, Gerbaz’s main attorney, said his client had no comment for reporters covering the trial. Members of the jury weren’t available for comment, so Silverman said it was impossible to determine what testimony they found most influential in the case.
In closing arguments Friday – when the prosecutor and defense got their final words with the jury – Silverman hammered the investigation of the wildfire by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s office as unprofessional and “one-sided.”
“This is the most ridiculous, meritless charge of arson ever brought,” Silverman said.
The wildfire broke out during high winds on April 15, 2008; it threatened more than 100 houses and burned three of them. One man was burned when he was overrun by flames.
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The sheriff’s office alleged the fire started in a wood pile that Gerbaz burned on a ranch owned by his family at 1265 Country Road 100 on Saturday, April 12. That ranch is about 1 mile east of Carbondale. High winds allegedly revived sparks or embers in the fire on Tuesday, April 15, and started surrounding grass, brush and trees on fire. Sheriff’s detectives ruled the fire was accidental.
Gerbaz was charged with two counts of fourth-degree arson on July 18, after the DA’s office spent three months pondering the case.
Silverman accused investigators of developing “tunnel vision” in the case. They developed a theory about the origin of the wildfire didn’t adequately follow other leads.
“The total focus became one little spot and it was wrong,” he said. “When they came across a fact that didn’t fit their theory, they threw it out.”
Silverman recounted for the jury that witnesses called by him and co-counsel Joe Kirwan said they saw numerous other fires burning in the neighborhood around Catherine Store on April 15 and the days immediately before. The defense’s expert witness, fire investigator Jeffrey Berino, testified that the “heel” or possible origin of the fire could have been in at least three locations other than the Gerbaz ranch, based on his analysis of burn patterns. He also said it was impossible to determine the cause of the fire.
Gerbaz didn’t testify in the trial, but he told investigators he took precautions to prevent fire from spreading from his wood pile. He created a fire break around the wood and had water at the scene. A man who helped him tend the fire testified that it was out cold before April 15.
Silverman told the jury it was ironic that authorities decided to charge Gerbaz, who he labeled “Honest Larry” and described as one of the most “anal” men in the valley when it came to fires and maintenance of his property.
Deputy District Attorney Ed Veronda told the jury during closing arguments that Gerbaz needed to be held accountable for allegedly failing to prevent his controlled burn from triggering a wildfire. Veronda said the evidence showed Gerbaz didn’t put the fire out. Burn marks showed the fire started at that burn pile, he claimed.
Veronda said the case wasn’t a referendum on controlled burns. They play a useful role on agricultural lands and other large parcels, he said, but they must be handled with care.
“Carbondale used to be the Wild West,” Veronda said. “It used to be a place 100 years ago where you could do whatever you wanted to on your land.”
Those days are gone, he said.
Veronda summarized the case succinctly for the jury: “It boils down to this – if you don’t think Larry Gerbaz’s debris pile started the County Road 100 fire, you must find him not guilty.”
The prosecution had to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Silverman insisted to the jury that the case was rife with reasonable doubt. “Frankly, this is an easy ‘not guilty,'” he said.
The fight over the County Road 100 wildfire isn’t over. Gerbaz is facing two civil lawsuits from Larry Garfinkel, a fisherman injured in the fire, and from homeowners whose property sustained damage. The plaintiffs in those cases are seeking in excess of $1 million from Gerbaz’s insurance company.