Carbondale fire chief on the hot seat during arson trial
Longtime Carbondale fire chief Ron Leach testified Tuesday in an arson trial that he is convinced the County Road 100 Fire in April 2008 originated on a ranch maintained by Larry Gerbaz.
Leach said the burn patterns left on grass, trees and vegetation trace back to a meadow at 1265 County Road 100, where there is a ranch maintained by Gerbaz. Strong winds prevailing from the west toward the east pushed the fire off that ranch and toward the Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision and Catherine Store, he said.
Under tough cross-examination by Gerbaz attorney Tom Silverman, Leach acknowledged he didn’t know the cause of the fire. He said it wasn’t his department’s duty to determine how it started since the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office investigated.
Leach stressed that he was testifying because he felt it is his responsibility as the fire chief of Carbondale to share the conclusions he reached. “I don’t have anything against Larry Gerbaz or anybody else,” he said.
Leach said he received a telephone call from Gerbaz about two weeks after the fire – which threatened scores of homes, damaged three houses, burned one man and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents. They didn’t discuss the fire.
“Larry asked if he needed to call the fire department each time he burned,” Leach said. The answer was affirmative.
Leach, the fire chief since 1980, was the leading witness for the prosecution in a trial that is scheduled to last seven more days and feature dueling theories from experts on where the fire started.
Deputy District Attorney Ed Veronda started building a case Tuesday to try to convince the jury that Gerbaz was careless in his handling of a controlled burn even if he didn’t intentionally let the fire get out of control. Gerbaz lit a wood pile on fire the weekend of April 12 and 13. When high winds kicked up the morning of Tuesday, April 15, Gerbaz was in Denver, both sides agree.
“He didn’t forget to turn out the lights. He forgot to put that fire out,” Veronda said.
He suggested to the jury that Gerbaz made a mistake that had major implications. “That spark neglected caused a mighty fire,” he said.
After opening with Leach as an expert witness, Veronda followed with Ryan Harrington, a former resident of Gerbaz’s neighborhood. He testified that he saw one large and one small fire burning in the pasture in the Gerbaz ranch. Flames spread to a large cottonwood tree and quickly spread when burning limbs fell.
“It hit the ground and just started racing toward Ranch at Roaring Fork” Harrington said.
Veronda said he will call 10 “lay witnesses” such as Harrington to testify that the fire started on the Gerbaz Ranch.
Silverman won’t get a chance to call defense witnesses until next week but he is already trying plant a seed in the mind of the jurors that the fire could have originated elsewhere. He said he will call “lots” of witnesses that will testify there were several controlled burns in that rural neighborhood on the morning of April 15.
“No one knows what the starting point of these fires were,” Silverman said. “It would be completely improper to try to make Larry Gerbaz the scapegoat.”
Under cross-examination by Silverman, Leach said at least three people in Gerbaz’s neighborhood called in burn notices to the fire department on days immediately before the April 15 wildfire.
Silverman questioned why the fire department didn’t immediately launch its own investigation or bring in outside experts to establish the origin and cause of the fire. Silverman said the Sheriff’s Office and district attorney got “tunnel vision” in the case and only collected evidence that supported their theory that Gerbaz was to blame. They ignored evidence to the contrary, he claimed.
During a court session while the jury was outside the room, Silverman more bluntly stated the Sheriff’s Office performed a “shoddy” investigation. He plans to call two expert witnesses to discredit the official investigation.
Veronda and Silverman were at such odds Tuesday that they couldn’t even agree on the size of wood pile that Gerbaz burned. Veronda described it to the jury as a pile 8 feet tall and 15 feet wide with massive cottonwoods.
Silverman called it a 4 by 10 foot pile of brush. He said Gerbaz and a helper tended it all day Saturday, April 12. The helper checked it out the following day, and Gerbaz checked it on Monday. Silverman said the men took great care to keep control of the fire and that it wasn’t even warm to the touch by the time Gerbaz departed for Denver.
Veronda will continue to build his case today and may call Larry Garfinkel to the stand. Garfinkel was fishing near Ranch at Roaring Fork when the fire struck. The wind-whipped flames overtook him and severely burned his hand. Veronda told the jury that Garfinkel, a retired Los Angles police officer, was able to escape the guns and bullets of L.A. gangs, but couldn’t escape the fire.
Garfinkel’s injuries are the basis for a felony arson charge against Gerbaz. A second arson charge is a misdemeanor for damage to property.
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