U.S. prosecutors drop case in massive Yosemite fire after witnesses die
The abrupt deaths of two key witnesses has caused the U.S. Attorney’s office to dismiss an indictment against a bow hunter accused of starting an illegal campfire that sparked the third-largest fire in recorded state history.
Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, of Columbia, Calif., was charged with setting timber on fire and lying to a government agency when questioned about the massive Rim fire, which scorched more than 250,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park in 2013.
But the recent death of two key witnesses, who were expected to testify during the trial, complicated the government’s case.
On Friday, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Emerald because the government was unlikely to prevail in court without the witnesses’ testimony.
“I appreciate the hard work done by the U.S. Forest Service in investigating this case, and I understand that the government’s motion to dismiss will be frustrating to some,” Wagner said. “However, when circumstances change after indictment, and our judgment is that a case is no longer likely to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it is our obligation to the defendant and to the Court to dismiss that case.”
One of the witnesses’ testimony was deemed critical because it delved into details about his conversation with Emerald after he was rescued from the area surrounding the Rim fire. Prosecutor said Emerald had to be rescued by helicopter an hour after the fire was reported.
That witness died in February in a workplace accident.
The second witness, a helicopter pilot who responded to the Rim fire, died of cardiac arrest. He was expected to testify about the initial response to the fire and Emerald’s rescue near the origin of the fire.
Their statements are inadmissible because they were made before the trial and are considered hearsay.
The Rim fire scorched more than 250,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park and cost more than $125 million during the course of the firefight. Officials said the total damage was estimated at hundreds of millions more.
Ten people were injured and more than 100 structures were destroyed during the Rim fire, which started Aug. 17, 2013, in the Stanislaus National Forest.
Prosecutors said Emerald was on a deer-hunting trip and ignored temporary no-fire restrictions at the national forest.
According to investigators, Emerald lied about how the campfire started, blaming it on a rock slide and then on marijuana growers.
He later signed an affidavit admitting he used pine needles, twigs and a lighter to start the campfire. He apparently lied because he feared retaliation from the community.
For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.