CSP, DA to prosecute van driver
Despite reports that family and friends of the five Oregon firefighters killed in a van crash last week don’t want the driver charged, the Colorado State Patrol and Ninth District Attorney’s office plan to move forward with prosecution.
District Attorney Mac Myers said at this point he plans to charge the driver, 21-year-old Megan Helm, of La Grande, Ore. But he noted that he can take special circumstances, such as family wishes and her personal character, into account later in the proceedings.
Myers could not comment further because his office hasn’t yet received any information on the accident.
Helm faces five charges of careless driving resulting in death and an unknown number of charges of careless driving resulting in serious injury, all misdemeanors. She is slated to appear in Garfield County Court in Rifle on July 31.
Myers said the only factor that goes into his decision on whether or not to charge Helm is “whether or not there was carelessness on her part.”
“The way we approach charging is if the facts support the charges,” he said.
Myers explained that if his office pressed charges based on any other factors, it would be subjective and jeopardize the integrity of the legal system.
“You just have to treat everybody the same way when charging,” he said. “We do that for everybody.”
Factors such as the wishes of the families and friends of victims, the nobleness of Helm’s mission – fighting the Hayman wildfire near Denver – and her character as a person can be considered during the sentencing portion of the case if she is found guilty.
Helm was driving a van for Grayback Forestry, a private La Grande-based firefighting company, when she lost control and crashed on Interstate 70 just east of Parachute last Friday afternoon.
Four firefighters died Friday and one died Monday. Six others were injured.
Helm was driving a 15-passenger van that left La Grande around 4:30 p.m. Thursday to travel to the Hayman Fire.
The bodies of the fallen firefighters were taken back to their homes on Wednesday.
Killed in the accident were Dan Rama, 28, of Baker City, Ore., Retha Shirley, 19, of La Grande, Ore., Jake Martindale, 20, of Boise, Idaho, Zachary Zigich, 18, of Twin Falls, Idaho, and Bartholomew Bailey, 20, of Corvallis, Ore.
Just after 10 a.m. Wednesday, temporary cardboard caskets, draped with Colorado state flags, holding the bodies of Rama, Shirley and Martindale were driven in a motorcade to the Garfield County Airport near Rifle.
Glenwood Springs police officer Levy Burris led the procession, which included two Farnum Holt Funeral Home transport vehicles and a U.S. Forest Service vehicle.
A Grand Junction hearse carrying the body of Bailey, the fifth firefighter to die as a result of Friday’s rollover accident, met the Glenwood Springs procession at the airport. There, all four caskets were loaded onto a U.S. Forest Service plane.
The casket containing the body of Zachary Zigich remained at the funeral home in Glenwood Springs until the Zigich family, of Twin Falls, Idaho, arrived a few hours later.
After an emotional moment at the side of their son’s casket, Michael and Angie Zigich were consoled by family and funeral directors Perry Bell and Kevin Brown.
A hearse carried the casket to Denver International Airport for a flight to Idaho.
Grayback Forestry has since recalled all its crews from assignments throughout the West.
Colorado State Patrol Capt. Scott Friend explained his office’s role in the process.
“We looked at it and conferred with the district attorney’s office. In this case, the charges are warranted, it’s just a case of what the DA wants to do with it,” Friend said.
“The State Patrol has to be unbiased. The actual act of the accident itself, we did have driver error,” he said.
But he acknowledged that it’s a very sensitive situation.
“The northwest part of the country is up in arms. They feel she shouldn’t have been charged, but the charges are appropriate.
“In every serious case, we charge what we can, what we feel is appropriate. We tried to handle it in the best manner possible and be very professional and thorough with our work.
“On the other side of the fence, we’re still human and our hearts go out in this situation,” Friend said.
The final report on the accident could be completed and delivered to the DA’s office by Friday, Friend said.
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