FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Criminal charges were dropped against a bow hunter accused of starting one of California's largest wildfires, a blaze that burned parts of Yosemite National Park, federal prosecutors said Friday.
The decision came after two key witnesses unexpectedly died within months of an indictment that was handed down last year against Matthew Emerald, prosecutors said.
The 33-year-old California man was accused of starting the 2013 blaze called the Rim Fire that burned for two months, scorching 400 square miles, destroying 11 homes and costing $125 million to fight.
Prosecutors said that without testimony from the two witnesses, they did not believe they could prove the allegations to jurors beyond a reasonable doubt. Previous statements made by the two witnesses can't be used in court, prosecutors said.
"I understand that the government's motion to dismiss will be frustrating to some," U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a statement, thanking U.S. Forest Service investigators for their work. "It is our obligation to the defendant and to the court to dismiss that case."
Emerald, a resident of Columbia, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, was accused of starting the blaze in August 2013 that ranks as California's third-largest wildfire and the largest in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada.
The fire burned parts of Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite's backcountry and private timber land.
Emerald had been bow hunting for deer when he was rescued near the site of the fire's origin by a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection helicopter crew. Investigators had said that in several interviews, Emerald gave them inconsistent stories about how the fire started and once acknowledged starting a campfire that got out of control.
Other times, they said, Emerald described causing a rockslide that sparked the flames, and he also blamed the fire on illegal marijuana growers.
A grand jury handed down a four-count indictment nearly a year after the fire that included charges of lying to investigators and starting a forest fire.
Emerald's defense team at the federal public defender's office had sought to suppress his statements, saying they were coerced. The office declined to immediately make a statement on prosecutors' decision to dismiss the indictment.
Emerald and his parents could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors say the unexpected deaths of the witnesses left too little evidence to make a case to jurors.
One of the prosecution's key witnesses unexpectedly died in a workplace accident in February. He had talked with Emerald shortly after being rescued.
The second witness — the helicopter pilot — died in March of a heart attack, authorities said.
If convicted, Emerald could have spent five years in prison. He has been free since posting a $60,000 bond.
McGregor Scott, a former U.S. attorney in Sacramento who is now in private practice, said it is rare for federal prosecutors to dismiss any indictment because they are generally supported by lengthy investigations.
"They have lots of time to talk to everybody and get all of the relevant information, so once that decision is brought, they're feeling very strong and comfortable about their case."
Scott said during his six years as U.S. attorney, he never encountered a case that was dismissed because two witnesses died. But if the two witnesses were key to the fire case, then prosecutors would be left with no choice but to dismiss the indictment absent a confession or physical evidence, he said. Since defense attorneys will not be able to cross-examine the witnesses in this case, their statements cannot be admitted, Scott said.
Evan Royce, a Tuolumne County supervisor, said residents definitely want better forest management to avoid such large fires in the future. However, those answers won't come through a courtroom conviction, he said.
The Rim Fire filled the air with smoke for weeks and closed wilderness areas, turning back tourists and money they spend at businesses.
"It's bigger than any one guy being punished for making a mistake," Royce said. "It's the way our forests are being managed. We need to learn from it."
Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Kristin J. Bender in San Francisco contributed to this report.