Feds dismiss Rim Fire indictment against Keith Emerald

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The federal government has moved to dismiss the indictment of Keith Emerald over Rim Fire charges after two key witnesses unexpectedly died.

In the motion to dismiss the indictment, the government said statement of the two witnesses deemed necessary of the trial could not be used as they would then be considered hearsay.

The first witness died in a workplace accident in February. That witness was expected to provide testimony concerning his interactions with Emerald shortly after he was rescued in the vicinity of the origin of the Rim Fire.

In March, the second witness died of a heart attack. That person was the helicopter pilot who first responded to the origin of the Rim Fire -- and rescued Emerald from the area.

The government said without the testimony of the two witnesses, they did not have enough evidence to prove charges against Emerald.

"I understand that the government's motion to dismiss will be frustrating to some," said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. "It is our obligation to the defendant and to the court to dismiss that case."

The 33-year-old Tuolumne County man was accused of starting the 2013 blaze called the Rim Fire that burned for two months, scorching 400 square miles and costing $125 million to fight. 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 had sought to suppress his statements, saying they were coerced. A message requesting comment from Emerald's attorney Janet Bateman was not immediately returned.

If convicted, Emerald could have spent five years in prison. He has been free since posting a $60,000 bond.

The blaze ranks as California's third-largest wildfire and the largest in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada.


The Associated Press contributed to this story
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