Arson probe turns to warrants

Authorities seize Country Mall owner's records for investigation

— The Craig Police Department and the 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office executed three search warrants Friday at the home and businesses owned by Marvin "Red" Cortner, a Craig businessman and "person of interest" in the Country Mall arson.

Cortner, 66, co-owns the Country Mall with Veldon "Lop" Behrman and "conducts all of the business related to the management of the property," according to an affidavit.

His home is located in the 400 block of Ranney Street, and the two furniture stores - both Homemaker Lease to Own Furnishings - are at 468 Ranney St. and 583 Yampa Ave.

Financial records were seized at the home and Ranney Street furniture store, both of which are located near the charred remains of the mall on the same street. No items were taken from the Yampa Avenue store.

Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta stopped short of calling Cortner a suspect in the Nov. 25 fire - a fire investigators believe was intentionally set - that destroyed the building and left 11 businesses without a place of operation.

"In these types of cases," Vanatta said, "the business owners are always a person of interest until such time when we can definitively eliminate them."

Items seized included tax forms, checks, bank records and handwritten papers and notepads, among other items.

"It may turn out to be nothing," the police chief said. "In the course of our investigation, these are things we have to look into. : We're exploring the same (avenues) as we would in any other case."

Cortner, who was in Pueblo on Friday, denied any involvement in the mall fire.

"I know I didn't start the fire," said Cortner, who added that he believed the fire's cause was accidental. "I'd deny it in a heart beat.

"It's quite a shock to me we've been investigated."

He also denied any knowledge of the search warrants, a notion disputed by Vanatta.

"I don't know nothing about it," Cortner said. "I'm not there.

"What would (financial records) have to do with the Country Mall? I can't imagine what good it would do. : This is squeaky clean. I'm thinking my rights have been violated."

The mall fire was reported at 10:15 p.m. Nov. 25, a Sunday.

Before the fire was reported, Craig Police officers were called to the scene of Furniture Gallery, 385 Ranney St., a building about 100 yards to the east of the mall, on a report of an attempted burglary, according to the affidavit.

About the same time, officers responded to an active dumpster fire in the Bank of Colorado parking lot, 250 W. Victory Way, approximately two blocks east of the mall.

The affidavit, which is public record, was drafted by the District Attorney's Office and is a lengthy document that describes aspects of the arson investigation and subsequent police and investigator interviews and statements.

In a summary of the investigation to date, the document contends that the furniture store burglary and dumpster fire were "coordinated efforts by the arsonist(s) to divert the attention of law enforcement to areas other than the fire at the Country Mall and/or confuse the follow-up investigative efforts.

"Further, although it is possible that one person committed the series of crimes, it is equally as plausible that there was coordination between two or more individuals so that the crimes occurred in time proximity."

The fire, the affidavit states, started in the High Country Veterinary Clinic, the area where Cortner told investigators at the scene he believed the fire began.

The document concluded, "There is probable cause to believe that Mr. Cortner was involved in perpetrating the crime of arson at (the) veterinary clinic within the Country Mall."

Cortner said authorities are investigating the wrong leads in the arson and that probes into him are "an attempt by the cops to discredit my business."

"I'm denying any involvement," Cortner said, "and I think they're opening themselves up for a lawsuit."

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