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Attorneys indicate Lake Christine Fire suspects are unified, won’t sell out one another

The boyfriend-girlfriend duo accused by police of starting the Lake Christine Fire will not point fingers at one another when their trials start later this spring, their attorneys indicated Thursday.

Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, both 24, are each facing three counts of felony arson for allegedly starting the fire while using the Basalt shooting range July 3. They pleaded not guilty in January.

Stan Garnett, attorney for Marcus, said in a pre-trial court proceeding Thursday that he has made no secret of the defense — she didn’t have the mental state to commit the crime. He said Marcus arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley from Maryland, went to her boyfriend’s dad’s house, then she and Richard Miller went to the shooting range. She was unaware of the fire ban in place at the time or what type of ammunition was with the rifle they borrowed from Miller’s father, according to Garnett.

“This is the one key issue in the case: What did Ms. Marcus know? What was she aware of?” he said.

Garnett later added, “The case is basically about what happened in 45 minutes of July 3.”

Josh Maximon, attorney for Miller, said there would be no antagonistic defense where Miller tries to pin the blame on Marcus. Instead his client will have a “general denial.”

That’s why a motion by Maximon to suppress evidence is so important to the case. Maximon wants a judge to rule that comments made by Miller to law enforcement officials at the Basalt shooting range July 3 while the fire was spreading cannot be used in the trial. Miller allegedly acknowledged that they had tracer rounds for the rifle Marcus was firing.

Investigators believe one of those rounds ignited fire in the grass along the rifle range. The fire spread and eventually burned more than 12,500 acres of national forest, state wildlife area and private lands. It also destroyed three homes.

Maximon and Garnett tried to establish during a four-hour hearing Thursday that Miller’s statement should be tossed because police did not first read him his Miranda rights, which inform a person that statements could be used to prosecute them.

Heidi McCollum, assistant district attorney in the 5th Judicial District, attempted to show that Miller and Marcus were never in police custody. The comments were made voluntarily, she said.

Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman said he would “do my best” to rule on the suppression motion on Friday.

Chris Mandrich, an off-duty law enforcement officer with the White River National Forest, reached the scene before any other law officers. Mandrich testified Thursday he was in flip-flops, board shorts and a casual top after a day at Ruedi Reservoir.

He rushed to the scene from his home in Basalt but didn’t represent himself as a law officer to Miller and Marcus and didn’t detain them, he said. He left the scene when Eagle County Deputy Josiah Maner arrived.

Under cross-examination by Maximon, Mandrich acknowledged he had parked his vehicle in a way that made it difficult for the Jeep that Miller and Marcus were in to leave the scene had they wanted to.

“You could argue one way or another that I boxed in their vehicle,” Mandrich said.

When Maner took the stand, he said Mandrich told him Miller and Marcus were the two “leads” for starting the fire.

“Ms. Marcus kind of approached us and said she was responsible for the fire and was extremely sorry,” Maner said. He said she had voluntarily approached them while they were talking and “just sort of blurted it out.”

She was “very emotional,” he said, and appeared to be almost in shock.

Marcus further explained that she was using the rifle range with a rifle that Miller set her up with, Maner said. Miller said he was using a shotgun. When Maner asked what kind of rounds they were using, Miller said birdshot in the shotgun but he didn’t know about the rifle.

The equipment of Miller and Marcus was spread around so Maner asked if he could check an ammunition box. That’s when Miller acknowledged they had tracer rounds, according to Maner.

“After the admission that they were using tracer rounds,” Maner said, he told them about the fire ban and that they were responsible for knowing those rounds were prohibited. He said he told them they were responsible for the fire.

When asked by McCollum if he read them their Miranda rights, Maner said he did not.

“They weren’t in custody,” he said. “I did not restrain them in any way. I did not put them in handcuffs.”

He issued them a summons but they weren’t arrested or placed into custody.

Under cross-examination, Maximon established that Miller and Marcus were at the shooting range for one hour and nine minutes after Maner arrived. During that time, Maner told them at least five times to “hang tight.”

“They’re being ordered by an officer to stay where they are at least five times over a 69-minute period,” Maximon said.

He claimed that some accusatory statements were made by Maner, such as they were responsible for their weapon and they should have know about the fire ban.

“This was a situation where (Miller) was not allowed to leave. They were asked questions,” Maximon said.

The amount of time they were at the shooting range before Maner told them they could leave qualifies as custody and they were subjected to custodial interrogation, Maximon said.

McCollum saw it differently. “Hang tight” is a colloquialism that didn’t literally mean stay where you are. Instead, Maner meant he would be right back after attending to other duties. In addition to questioning Miller and Marcus, he was relaying conditions at the scene to his superiors, coordinating with firefighters on the scene and discussing if evacuations were needed in homes close to the shooting range.

Maner didn’t talk to Miller and Marcus for 69 consecutive minutes, she said. He talked to them for a few minutes in between those other duties.

McCollum said both Marcus and Miller volunteered information to Maner. Marcus took responsibility for the fire and called 911.

“Of course they were the prime suspects,” McCollum said. “She said, ‘Yes, it was me.’”

When Maner asked to look at the ammo box used by Miller and Marcus, Miller said, “Well, if I can be honest, it was tracer rounds,” according to McCollum.

“I don’t think the court should suppress any of the comments by Mr. Miller,” McCollum said.

Dunkelman acknowledged that the ruling in the suppression motion is substantial.

“A huge part of this case is Mister Miller’s statement,” he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Judge denies change of venue in Lake Christine Fire case

A request by the defendants in the Lake Christine Fire case to have their trials transferred from Eagle County to elsewhere in Colorado was denied by a judge Thursday.

Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman said he is confident an impartial jury can be found despite a high level of local media and public interest in the cases against Richard Miller and Allison Marcus.

Among the standard for a change of venue is that pre-trial media coverage was massive, persuasive and prejudicial.

“I would not categorize the publicity as massive. It was extensive,” Dunkelman said.

A lot of the media attention is in the Roaring Fork Valley, which includes a sliver of Eagle County in the Basalt and El Jebel areas, Dunkelman noted. The highest population concentration in the county is in the Eagle Valley, so they won’t be as aware of the case, he said.

Attorneys for Miller and Marcus, both 24, claimed it would be difficult to get a fair trial because the fire affected so many people and that some were evacuated. The Lake Christine Fire and others in the state were reported on extensively during an active fire season last summer.

As further evidence that a substantial number of people have a bias against the defendants, the attorneys noted there were a large number of people posting comments to Facebook after Miller had to be rescued by Mountain Rescue Aspen and the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol after he skied outside the ski area’s boundary in March. A news release of the event was posted on the Facebook pages of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and MRA as well as newspapers.

That event brought to light the hostile feelings many people in the public hold against Miller, said his attorney, Josh Maximon.

“The things that were being said were very cruel,” Maximon said.

Johnny Lombardi, deputy district attorney in the 5th Judicial District, said numerous comments on Facebook were not grounds for changing the venue. The commenters aren’t necessarily from Eagle County, he said, and media coverage of the fire doesn’t necessarily mean readers hold a bias.

He argued that the motion should be denied and the trial should be held where the incident occurred.

In denying the motion, Dunkelman said he would approve having prospective jurors fill out a questionnaire that will be used to determine if they are aware of the case and can be impartial.

Miller and Marcus each face three charges of fourth-degree arson, a Class 4 felony, and setting fire to woods or prairie, a Class 6 felony. Miller and Marcus are free on a $7,500 bond each.

As the cases stand now, Miller’s trial is scheduled for May 28 to June 7 with the trial for Marcus on June 17 to 28.

Dunkelman didn’t immediately rule on a pre-trial motion to suppress comments made by Miller when law enforcement officials investigated the origins of the fire at the Basalt shooting range.

The fire burned more than 12,500 acres on state, federal and private lands and destroyed three houses.

scondon@aspentimes.com