Man gets 24 years for Rifle arsons
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” More than two years after arson fires were set to four buildings in Rifle, the man accused of setting them is going to prison.
Robin Jay Clifton, 48, entered guilty pleas Thursday in two cases linked to his setting those fires on Sept. 5, 2005. The blazes caused more than $1.5 million in damages.
Clifton pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree arson; one count each of aggravated motor vehicle theft and indecent exposure, plus other charges resulting in his sentencing as a habitual criminal.
“Two years ago and over $1 million later the city of Rifle woke up to fire alarms and plumes of smoke,” Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cheney said.
He said Rifle lived in fear of an arsonist on the loose for some time and that the victims could never be made whole.
“They woke up the next day and they had nothing but pain,” Cheney said.
Ninth Judicial District Judge Denise Lynch sentenced Clifton to 24 years in prison. Clifton received additional, lesser sentences to run simultaneously. He also gave up rights to appeal, and prosecutors have a 90-day time period to file a motion for restitution. Clifton, who was arrested on April 7, 2006, has credit for 544 days in jail already served.
Clifton, whose residence was listed as Collbran, Colo., was arrested prior to the fires after he was seen in the Rifle Wal-Mart parking lot indecently exposing himself. He was sitting in a truck that had a stolen trailer with a motorcycle on it.
Outside the courtroom, 9th Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson said that Clifton set four blazes in order to try to destroy the evidence. One fire was set at the Fireside Lanes bowling alley north of Rifle on Highway 13, then fires at townhomes and the Mi Hacienda Nightclub in the middle of town, and then to the Amoco Service Station at the corner of Highway 6 and Railroad Avenue, where the stolen trailer and motorcycle were located. Clifton set the fires north of the Amoco first to distract and occupy authorities. The fires destroyed the Amoco and nearly destroyed the Fireside Lanes. All the fires were set within a two-hour period.
Both the Fireside Lanes and service station have been rebuilt and reopened.
Ava Bowles, an owner of the Fireside Lanes, said, “Thank you to everyone that worked so hard to get Mr. Clifton here. We needed to hear him say he was guilty. … He not only destroyed our property, he destroyed our lives.”
But she added, “I have already forgiven him because I am a Christian, but (Clifton) need to understand you can’t be with other people. You need to be outside of society.”
Clifton offered an apology.
“I’d like to just say to the Bowles ” I’m sorry,” he said.
David Valencia, a Rifle native bought the Amoco service station in 1980 and reopened it after the fire in August 2006. Reached by phone last night, he said that it’s time to move on.
“I’m glad it’s done and over with. Two years and two months later, it’s time to put it behind us and move on,” he said.
Earlier in the hearing, Clifton’s attorney Arnold Mordkin suggested Clifton has taken responsibility for his actions.
“There has been a mea culpa moment,” he said. “At least the Bowles had an opportunity to hear someone say, ‘Yes, I did do it.'”
Clifton’s criminal history dates back to 1978 and includes convictions ranging from robbery to drugs to prison escape.
About 800 jurors had been called for a 21-day arson trial in May, but that trial was postponed until January 2008. Clerk of the Combined Courts for Garfield County James Bradford said the resolution came as a relief to him and his staff as well as the potential jurors. The high number of jurors had been called for various reasons including the fact that the business owners victimized in the arsons likely knew many of the potential jurors, he added.
Beeson said that in exchange for the guilty pleas, many charges were dropped, including two more counts of first-degree arson, burglary and other charges. But he noted that 24 years in prison is a long time, and the community and taxpayers won’t have to endure a long and costly trial. He defers to the victims on questions about justice being served.
“We feel justice has been served,” Bowles said earlier.
Beeson said the Rifle Police Department and Detective Bill Jones put together a very compelling case and that Clifton ultimately must have realized how difficult it would have been to fight it. Evidence in the case included the motivation to destroy the stolen property, Clifton’s dropped glasses at the Amoco, and burns on Clifton’s body consistent with security video footage of a man running from the Amoco with flames on his arms and part of his face, Beeson and Cheney said. Authorities also found a suspicious $1.14 gas receipt before the fires were started.
“He’s reaped what he’s sowed,” Beeson said.
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