Clifton to stand trial for four Rifle fires
Post Independent Staff
Accused arsonist Robin J. Clifton is headed for trial to defend himself against charges he set four fires on Labor Day 2005 in Rifle. The fires destroyed the Rifle Amoco service station and nearly destroyed the Fireside Lanes bowling alley.
At the conclusion of a preliminary hearing Tuesday, District Court Judge Denise Lynch ruled there was probable cause that crimes were committed that day and that Clifton committed them.
Lengthy testimony by an investigating officer and a chilling videotape that showed a man start the fire in the gas station led Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cheney to link Clifton to the crimes by a complicated web of circumstantial evidence.
Cheney painted a picture of a man who set fire to the gas station to destroy evidence that implicated him in felony theft.
“This is what this case is all about, coverup,” he said.
Clifton, 47, of Collbran, was caught masturbating inside a truck in the parking lot of the Rifle Wal-Mart on Sept. 5, 2005. The arresting officer found that a motorcycle and trailer attached to Clifton’s truck were stolen. They were impounded at the Rifle Amoco station.
Clifton was arrested on April 7, 2006, after a seven-month investigation. His criminal history dates back to 1978 and includes charges ranging from robbery to drugs to prison escape.
Clifton, Cheney said in his argument before Judge Lynch, was desperate to destroy evidence of a felony theft knowing he could be prosecuted as a habitual criminal, lengthening any prison sentence he would receive if found guilty.
In fact, Clifton faces 18 criminal charges including arson for the four structure fires he allegedly set on Sept. 5, 2005, and four counts of being a habitual criminal. He also faces charges of tampering with physical evidence, two counts of burglary and violation of his bail bond.
Testimony from Rifle Detective William Jones linked Clifton to a pair of prescription sunglasses found at the Amoco station the day after the fire which were similar to eyeglasses found during a search of his home in Collbran. During the search, a ball cap was found that looked similar to a cap worn by the arsonist captured on a video surveillance tape retrieved from the burned gas station.
Several witnesses who encountered Clifton after the fire told police he appeared to have burns on his hands and face. Clifton’s arrest in April was precipitated when Jones saw him going into court on the indecent exposure charge and noticed what appeared to be a healing burn mark on his forehead.
According to Cheney, investigators also found a receipt for $1.01 worth of gas from the Amoco station on Sept. 5, a receipt signed by Clifton that placed him at the scene of the arson.
Perhaps the most compelling piece of circumstantial evidence was a video tape from cameras posted both outside and inside the station that captured the actions of the arsonist. The tape showed a man breaking out a garage door panel and crawling through the panel into the garage carrying four one-gallon-sized jugs.
Another clip showed him inside the front of the building splashing liquid from the jugs over the counter area. While the video shows the man in close up, his face is obscured by a billed cap and he appears hunched over, as if, Cheney said, he was aware of the cameras.
A last clip, which was partially destroyed by the fire and retrieved by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, showed the man outside the garage reach in to light the fire, then the man engulfed in flame running away from the building.
Cheney said Clifton lit the string of fires to lure firefighters away from the last and final fire at the Amoco station. Two other fires were set in the early hours of Sept. 5 at Mi Hacienda restaurant on Whiteriver Avenue and a townhouse on Meadow Circle.
“The pattern of fires was no coincidence. It was set by a man with a motive to destroy evidence who was facing serious prison time,” Cheney said.
Clifton’s attorney Arnold Mordkin challenged Cheney’s conclusions.
“Where is the evidence,” he asked. “Where is the probable cause to connect Mr. Clifton to the burning? What we have here is a theory, (about) diversion. Where is the evidence he was anywhere near it?”
However, he did not dispute that probable cause did exist to link Clifton to the fire at the Amoco station but not the other three.
Lynch overruled Mordkin in finding probable cause to connect Clifton to the four fires. His next court date is set for Nov. 16 in District Court in Glenwood Springs.
Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 16605
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