On July 15, 2018, as the Lake Christine Fire that ultimately torched more than 12,000 acres near Basalt and destroyed three homes was still raging, Allison Marcus, 22, and Richard Miller, 23, surrendered to authorities, who suspected them of starting the blaze by allegedly firing tracer bullets at a local shooting range maintained by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The two were subsequently charged with three counts of fourth-degree arson, a Class 4 felony that carries possible imprisonment of two to six years and fines from $2,000 to $500,000, and one count of firing woods or prairie, a Class 6 felony punishable by from one year to eighteen months behind bars and fines from $1,000 to $100,000.
But on May 22, Marcus and Miller pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor variation on setting fire to woods or prairie in exchange for a much lighter punishment: Each was sentenced to 45 days in jail, $100,000 in restitution, 1,500 hours of community service and five years of probation.
This shift reflects a prosecution that seemed ironclad but was eventually weakened by two signs: an unofficial one that mentioned the prohibition against use of tracer bullets, and an official one that didn't.
According to the Eagle County Sheriff's Office, the conflagration was sparked on the evening of July 3 of last year, and by 8:07 p.m. on July 5, it had grown to more than 5,000 acres, with 0 percent containment.
By then, 1,793 residents had been evacuated from 664 homes and three residences were lost.
The fierceness of the fire made national and international news, and the danger from it lingered for months. According to the final update on the federal InciWeb site, the situation wasn't placed on monitor status until September 15, when containment was designated at 94 percent. Officials stated that full containment wouldn't be achieved "until a season-ending weather event occurs like multiple days of rain or snow."
By then, the focus had shifted to Marcus and Miller, whose actions inspired Colorado Parks and Wildlife to temporarily close shooting ranges it managed across the state, including facilities in Grand, Eagle, Mesa, Garfield and Routt counties.
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But earlier this month, as revealed by the Aspen Daily News, a ruling by Eagle County District Court Judge Paul Dunkelman cut the legs out from under the felony case against the pair. In order to convict the two of the most serious charges, prosecutors needed to prove that they had "knowingly or recklessly" started the fire. However, Marcus's attorneys — former Boulder district attorney Stan Garnett and colleague Amanda Houseal — disputed this assertion in a motion revealing that a CPW sign didn't reference tracer bullets, and the only sign that cited a ban was posted by a private gun club that runs part of the range.
Moreover, the motion pointed out that the gun club's placard was "just inside the doorway of the rifle range and behind the backs of anyone entering the rifle range," with the reference to tracers "buried deep within this sign, in the ninth bullet point, after a discussion regarding picking up trash and keeping the range clean.... Ms. Marcus never saw this small sign, and [prosecutors] have no evidence that she did."
By siding with the defense on this point, Dunkelman effectively made the felony cases impossible to prove, necessitating the aforementioned plea deal.
Sentencing for Marcus and Miller has been set for July 1, two days shy of a year since the Lake Christine Fire started and changed so many lives — including theirs. But thanks to those signs, they'll be incarcerated for far less time than it took to extinguish the flames.