Remember the massive, devastating, utterly depressing Rim Fire of 2013, the third biggest wildfire in state history that burned 400 square miles of forest including parts of Yosemite National Park? Well the man charged with causing all that destruction, a deeply ignorant hunter named Keith Matthew Emerald, formerly of Half Moon Bay, will not end up paying for his alleged crime because the government has just dropped all charges against him. The reason: Two key witnesses in the case are now dead.
Emerald was facing a possible sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine after his campfire in the Clavey River Canyon area of the Stanislaus National Forest was pinpointed as the likely cause of the blaze. Emerald had to be airlifted out of the area an hour after the fire began, and as KGO Radio reports, one of the witnesses was the first-responder helicopter pilot who rescued Emerald. That helicopter pilot recently died of cardiac arrest.
Another witness who apparently had incriminating conversations with Emerald following the fire, "died in a workplace incident in February."
The federal indictment against Emerald was filed last August, but as Sacramento's ABC affiliate News 10 reports, the two witnesses' prior statements to investigators are considered inadmissible and cannot be used as evidence at trial.
In the motion to dismiss the charges, the U.S. attorney says that without these two witnesses' testimony before a jury, "it is unlikely they can prove the charges against Emerald beyond a reasonable doubt."
This development is likely to enrage a lot of people across the region and the state, given the depth and expense of the destruction the Rim Fire caused, which the environment is still recovering from.