After being indicted by a Federal Grand Jury in August, 2014, the unexpected deaths of two witnesses caused the federal government this week to move to dismiss the charges against 32-year-old Keith Matthew Emerald for starting the 2013 Rim Fire that burned 257,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park in California.
The government’s motion to dismiss the charges characterized one witness as critical to the case and stated that he had been expected to provide trial testimony regarding his discussions with Mr. Emerald shortly after he had been rescued from the vicinity of the Rim Fire’s origin. That witness died in a workplace accident in February. The second witness was the helicopter pilot who first responded to the Rim Fire. That witness had been expected to testify about the initial response to the Rim Fire and the rescue of the defendant very close to the Rim Fire’s point of origin. That witness died in March of cardiac arrest.
These witnesses’ prior statements now are considered hearsay and cannot be used as evidence at trial.
In its motion to dismiss the charges, the government stated that it had reassessed the case in light of the loss of this anticipated trial testimony and determined that without that testimony it was unlikely to prove the charges in the case beyond a reasonable doubt to the unanimous satisfaction of a trial jury. Accordingly, it was in the interests of justice to dismiss the case.
According to court documents, Mr. Emerald was rescued by a CAL FIRE helicopter from the extremely remote Clavey River Canyon area of the Stanislaus National Forest near the origin of the Rim Fire about an hour after the fire was reported. He was carrying bow hunting equipment with him and advised authorities that he had been on a solo hunting trip.
The CAL FIRE crew turned Mr. Emerald over to a U.S. Forest Service Fire Prevention Technician, who was not a law enforcement officer. He was later given a ride out of the forest by a government employee, but no one asked him for any identification. Investigators believe they were able to overcome that oversight. Later they applied for a search warrant for Mr. Emerald’s house and his vehicle, expecting to possibly find evidence in his computer, cell phone, backpack he was carrying that day, or elsewhere on the premises.
During the extensive investigation and multiple interviews with Mr. Emerald, he told investigators several different versions of how the fire started, including:
- Illegal pot growers;
- He inadvertently started a rock slide, causing rocks to collide, creating sparks, which started the fire;
- He said he started a campfire and burned some trash in it. The burning trash blew into vegetation, starting the fire which escaped.
Mr. Emerald later recanted the campfire story.
Investigators ruled out all possible fire causes other than “incendiary/intentional fire start by human”, the court documents revealed.