Assistant DA presents evidence in arson case
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cheney wove a complex web of circumstantial evidence in District Court Thursday in an attempt to link accused arsonist Robin Jay Clifton to a series of devastating fires. Clifton, 47, of Collbran, has been charged with setting four fires on Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2005, which destroyed the Rifle Amoco service station and nearly destroyed the Fireside Lanes bowling alley.After the first day of testimony, the case was continued until later this month.Clifton was arrested on April 7, 2006, after a seven-month investigation. His criminal history dates back to 1978 and includes more than 20 charges ranging from robbery to drugs to prison escape. Besides the arson-related charges, he has also been charged as a habitual criminal.Cheney led Rifle Detective William Jones through the details of the investigation that tied articles of clothing, a stolen motorcycle, a ball cap, and finally a chilling, almost cinematic videotape of a person spraying what was apparently gasoline around the inside of the Amoco station on Sept. 5, and setting it, and himself, alight in a exploding inferno of fire. The video was from a surveillance camera at the Amoco,The preliminary hearing is held to determine if a crime has been committed and the prosecution has probable cause to believe the accused committed it. A strange first encounter
Clifton first came to the attention of Rifle police on Sept. 1, 2005 when they received a report that a man was seen in the Wal-Mart parking lot without his pants on. Rifle policeman Kirk Wilson testified, “I stopped him and he was masturbating. I instructed him to stop and put on his pants.”Clifton had in his possession a trailer and motorcycle that were reportedly stolen in Park City, Utah, some three weeks previously. Clifton later told police an uncle who had passed away had left them to him.Jones also testified that when Clifton was arrested on Sept. 1, the motorcycle and trailer were towed to the Rifle Amoco, which contracts with the police department to tow and impound seized vehicles.Jones also testified police found a pair of reading glasses in the parking lot of the Amoco station the day of the fire that were later analyzed by a specialized lab in Florida and found to be the same prescription as a second pair of glasses later seized in Clifton’s residence in Collbran.Jones said on Sept. 2 an unidentified man came to the Amoco station and attempted to retrieve some articles from the motorcycle and trailer but left before police arrived to question him.Jones also pointed on an enlarged map of Rifle the locations of the fires, their distances for each other – from .3 to 1.3 miles – and the timing of the fires. Apparently working from north to south, the arsonist first lit the bowling alley on fire around 3 a.m., then traveled south to a townhouse at 2527 Meadow Circle behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and then later set fire to the Mi Hacienda at 2090 Whiteriver Avenue. That fire did not burn for long and was not reported until after 9 a.m. that morning. The Amoco station was set alight around 4:30 a.m.Suspicions arise
Clifton came into the picture as a suspect on Sept. 28 when Todd Saunders at Big O Tires in Grand Junction reported “Rob” Clifton, who he new as a customer, brought in a set of new tires asking what they were worth and arousing Saunders’ suspicions. He also appeared with bandages on his fingers and arms and said he’d been burned with gasoline.”Todd knows David Valencia (owner of the Rifle Amoco) and he felt it was important to report it,” Jones saidJones checked Clifton’s Sept. 1 jail booking photograph and noticed the glasses he was wearing were similar to those found at the Amoco station the day of the fire.On Sept. 16, Clifton was involved in a single car rollover accident near Collbran. A Good Samaritan stopped to help but reported to a Colorado State Patrol officer that the man, Clifton, refused his help and angrily told him not to call police. The man called police anyway and the state trooper who responded to the accident found two outstanding arrest warrants out on Clifton and took him to jail in Grand Junction.Jones actually came face to face with Clifton on Oct. 5, 2005, when Clifton made an appearance in Glenwood Springs District Court on the indecent exposure charge. Jones saw what he believed were burn marks on Clifton’s face and was granted a search warrant for Clifton’s house in Collbran where he found the glasses.Compelling video
By far the most compelling but elusive evidence presented Thursday was video clips retrieved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from partly destroyed surveillance cameras taken from the Amoco station after the fire and dated Sept. 5. Cheney showed five clips that, frame by frame, revealed a man dressed in blue jeans, a black long-sleeved shirt and a black ball cap breaking out a panel of one of the station’s garage doors. The video showed him crawling into the garage carrying four gallon plastic jugs. Another clip showed him inside the front of the building splashing liquid from the jugs over the entire area, and spilling it on his hands and arms and feet. Although the pictures show the man close up, the billed cap obscures his face. Jones also testified the writing on the hat was similar to a Carhartt hat also found in Clifton’s home in Collbran during the April 6 search.In the final clip, in scenes reminiscent of a horror film, the man crawls out of the broken garage door panel and bends to light a wick that trails inside. He also bends back through the broken pane and apparently lights the gasoline inside. Suddenly there is a blazing flash and flames blast out the door panel engulfing the man who turns away, completely surrounded by fire.And like a good movie serial, District Court Judge Denise Lynch brought the hearing to a dramatic close at 5:30 p.m. after hearing two hours of testimony. In order to give Clifton’s attorney Arnold Mordkin plenty of time to cross-examine Jones, she continued the hearing until Tuesday, Oct. 31, at 8 a.m.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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