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Charges Dropped Against Rim Fire Suspect, Groveland Reaction

Matt McMillian US Forest Service

A federal judge has dismissed charges against the California man accused of sparking the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in 2013. Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero has more.

Prosecutors decided to drop the charges against 33-year-old Keith Matthew Emerald, after two key witnesses unexpectedly died. Without their testimonies the US Attorney said it was unlikely they could prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

UNITED STATE ATTORNEY BENJAMIN WAGER: “I appreciate the hard work done by the US Forest Service investigating this case, and I understand that the government’s motion to dismiss will frustrate some. 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 the court to dismiss the case.”

One witness died in a workplace accident in February.

"I understand that the government's motion to dismiss will frustrate some"- Federal prosecutor Benjamin Wagner

That witness was expected to testify about talking to emerald shortly after he was rescued from the vicinity of the fire.

The second witness died of a heart attack in March.

That witness was the helicopter pilot who responded to the fire and was expected to testify about the initial response to the fire and the rescue of Emerald.

Any statements the two witnesses had already made are inadmissible and cannot be used as evidence.

Randy Hanvelt is a Tuolomne County Supervisor, where the fire began.

HANVELT: “Who set the fire or how the fire was set becomes a small issue. The real damage is the mismanagement of the forest. That’s more serious.”

Emerald was charged last August with starting the blaze on a hunting trip. The fire burned for two months and caused over $125 million in damages. It was the largest fire ever in the Sierra Nevada.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Randi Jones and Kevin Reynolds of Kevin and Randi's Old Fashioned Meat Market in Groveland.

Kevin Reynolds runs Kevin and Randi’s Old Fashioned Meat Market in Groveland, the community closest to the Rim Fire burn area. He was shocked when he learned the charges were dropped.

REYNOLDS: “Wow, wow. But then again you know if they did find him guilty and all that stuff and they run him through the mud I’m sure he doesn’t

Reynolds says Groveland is rather forgiving to the man who is thought to have started the blaze.

REYNOLDS: “As far as anybody being bitter towards the guy we’re not catching any of that in here at all. They don’t want anybody to burn at the stake. We just want our forests back.”

Emerald faced charges of starting a fire, leaving it unattended, violating fire restrictions and making false statements to investigators. He would have faced a maximum sentence of 11 years in prison and more than $500,000 dollars in fines.

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of Valley Public Radio. During his tenure, he's helped lead the station through major programming changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the station's financial health. From 2010-2018 he served as the station's Director of Program Content. In that role, he also served as the host of Valley Edition, and helped launch and grow the station's award-winning local news department. He is a Fresno native and a graduate of California State University, Fresno.
Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.
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