Victims recall toll of Lake Christine Fire, call for penalty to fit the crime
EAGLE COUNTY — The direct victims of the Lake Christine Fire finally had their say in court Monday and they delivered stirring testimony about how the blaze shattered their lives and the penalty that should be paid.
The three couples that lost homes in the fire spoke at a sentencing hearing for Allison Marcus and Richard Miller, the couple convicted of starting the blaze. Also speaking was Tom Dunlop, a heavy-equipment operator who was nearly killed during the firefighting effort.
“The Lake Christine Fire took my home and my security with a hellish vengeance,” said Andee McCauley, who lost her longtime home. “The total loss of my beloved home with all its memories and personal treasurers has taken quite the emotional and physical toll.
“One cannot underestimate the sheer terror — the sheer terror — of evacuation,” she added.
The home of Andee and her husband, Bill, was a total loss. “Soot, ashes and tears is all I have,” McCauley continued. She has experienced shock, hopelessness, depression and anger — “lots of anger.”
“I want to hear something that makes me feel like they actually care about what they’ve done to destroy my life,” McCauley said of the defendants. “I can’t let go and I don’t want to. I want to remember this for the rest of my life.”
Kara Williams spoke specifically about what she wanted to see as part of the sentence for Marcus and Miller. Williams and her husband, Quent, experienced extensive smoke damage to their Missouri Heights home and devastation to the surrounding hillside. They had to leave their house for 23 days for restoration and live like “refugees,” she said.
A rental home they owned adjacent to El Jebel Mobile Home Park was destroyed.
“The summer of 2018 was the lost summer, because instead of relaxing with my teenage daughter who moved out of the house to go to college in mid-August, we spent it dealing with insurance agents,” Williams said. “Instead of hosting friends for outdoor patio dinners, with the air too smoky and land too smelly, like a wet cigar, we spent it in our closed-up house, to avoid letting smoky air and soot back in.
She told Eagle County District Court Judge Paul Dunkelman it was a lost summer for thousands of people and she wanted to provide them with a voice.
“I am able to stand before you today able to tell my story because I’m a victim — I lost a house in the Lake Christine Fire,” Williams said. “But you can multiply my story by thousands. The defendants here in this room today started a fire that traumatized so many local residents in so many different ways. The Williamses, the McCauleys, the Martinezes … we are hardly the only victims in the Lake Christine Fire. Many others similarly suffered.”
She urged Dunkelman to keep the big picture in mind when handing down the sentence.
In a plea bargain negotiated in May by the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the attorneys for the defendants, it was agreed Marcus and Miller would spend 45 days in jail, serve 1,500 hours of useful public service, pay $100,000 each in restitution and serve five years of probation.
“Is the proposed 45-day jail sentence and hundred thousand dollars in restitution fair for the crimes they committed?” Williams asked. “Honestly, that’s a hard question for me to answer. I do appreciate that these specific punishments represent, in part, some of the suffering my family has endured. When they go to jail, they’ll be forced from their homes like we were.”
The restitution is “paltry” compared with the firefighting cost of more than $20 million, but Williams said she could appreciate that they will hand over a portion of their future paychecks.
The community service is the most appropriate, she said. They will spend the equivalent of 38 weeks at 40 hours per week to serve the sentence. She stressed that the community service must fit the crime.
“I believe strongly their community service should be spent helping conservancy or forest officials: reseeding land ravaged by fire, or clearing fallen trees from recreation trails, or otherwise doing anything in their power to help restore the land they destroyed,” Williams said.
Secondary duties should include picking up trash or otherwise beautifying the midvalley, she said.
Kerry and Cleve Williams had another compelling story because Cleve is a deputy fire chief for Roaring Fork Fire Rescue who led a team that tried to save his neighborhood. They couldn’t save his house but saved the surrounding homes.
Insurance covered the loss, although they spent numerous hours working on the insurance claim. Kerry said she took a multiple-week leave of absence from her job as a sixth-grade teacher to handle insurance work and provide emotional support for her family. Their 17-year-old son Cole appeared in court with them. A daughter is away in college.
While insurance covers the loss in a general way, Kerry made it clear their losses will never be replaced.
“Every item of convenience such as an ice scraper, raincoats, winter boots — gone,” she said. “Every hobby-related item — gone. Favorite cooking utensils, ice cream bowls, coffee mugs — gone.
“Every keepsake or memento from relatives no longer living like letters from my grandma, recipes in my mom’s handwriting, or hand-crocheted baby blankets from my aunt — gone,” she continued.
The long list of lost treasures included Cleve’s awards from serving with the fire department for nearly 29 years.
When the Lake Christine Fire raked across lower slopes of Basalt Mountain toward El Jebel and Missouri Heights on July 4, 2018, Kerry Williams revealed what she was thinking when her family was forced to evacuate while Cleve was firefighting.
“The last thing I did before leaving my house was to pray that no one would get hurt while trying to save our house and that my husband wouldn’t stay too long and put himself in danger,” she said.
With the help of friends, family and supporters, they got through the hard times, she said.
Cleve Williams said he found it hard to believe, as the attorneys for the defendants suggested, that they were unaware of fire restrictions that applied to the shooting range in the hot, dry summer of 2018. Colorado was tinderbox dry and warnings were posted everywhere about fire danger, he said.
Kerry Williams suggested Marcus and Miller should do community service that aids victims of natural and human caused disasters.
Marcus, 23, and Miller, 24, spoke for the first time in brief statements to the court.
“I wish that day would have never happened,” Marcus said.
She said she didn’t realize the rifle was loaded with tracer ammunition. She expressed sorrow for the incident and gratefulness for the firefighters’ efforts.
When addressing the court, Miller took a couple of minutes to gain his composure before saying, “I would like to talk about what happened on July 3 last year.”
He said he also had “no idea” that there were tracer rounds provided with the rifle and that Marcus was also unaware. She was at the rifle range while he was at the shotgun range. She contacted him when the fire broke out and he directed her to call 911.
“I immediately did everything I could to put the fire out myself,” Miller said, breaking into tears. “I wish there was more I could have done. But it happened.”
He concluded by saying, “I am sorry.”
Dunkelman said he felt the negotiated sentence was appropriate.
“Ultimately I believe it’s a fair and just sentence,” Dunkelman said. “This sentence checks off everything we look for.”
The checklist includes punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation and accountability. Dunkelman said he realizes some people won’t feel the jail sentence was long enough, but he noted Marcus and Miller are both in their early 20s and haven’t been in trouble with the law before.
“When that cell closes on you, it’s a scary moment,” Dunkelman said.
He was sympathetic to the calls for relevant community service.
“This is the harsh part of it, this is reality — the pain that you caused is very real,” Dunkelman told the defendants. “Decisions have consequences and poor decisions have huge consequences.”
On the other hand, he said they have no prior criminal history. He said he believes they were sincere about their remorse and determination to make it up to the community.
“The other thing is you didn’t run from this,” he said. “It was too big to run from. But you stayed here, you stayed in this community. That took courage. The easy thing would have been to say I’m going back to somewhere else.”
He said it is appropriate that the community service be “related in some form to this fire.” The probation office will work out the details, he said.
“Really what I’m saying is it’s not going to be going to the animal shelter,” Dunkelman said. “Those are good things to do but they’re not what we’re going to do in this case.”