Black Forest Fire Investigation

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Black Forest Fire Investigation

Sheriff Terry Maketa

It seems the community is unclear about how the Black Forest Fire investigation has been handled from the start. While I am not a firefighter, I am the Fire Warden of El Paso County, per State Statute CRS 30-10-513, titled: “Sheriff in Charge of Forest or Prairie Fire-Expenses”, which affords me the authority to access State Assistance in the event of an emergency such as the Black Forest Fire.

When there is a fire, especially when people are injured or lives are lost, such as this instance, law enforcement becomes involved, not just firefighters. Firefighters do not have the ability to write warrants, collect evidence, process crime scenes or serve warrants on arrestees. The Sheriff’s Office handles the majority of arson investigations outside the incorporated areas or municipalities, and when a municipality requests our arson investigative services, such as the case in Monument a few weeks ago. Due to the destructiveness of the Black Forest Fire and the unfortunate loss of two lives, the Sheriff’s Office is the lead agency in investigating the cause of the fire. The Sheriff’s Office Arson Investigators and Major Crimes Unit have worked closely with national experts at the federal level, as well as specialists in the private sector. These cases can be very complicated, and more important than just finding the cause, is protecting the integrity of an investigation at every step, for possible prosecution. Essentially, the Sheriff’s Office has spared no expense to bring in nationally recognized and credentialed experts to assist us with the full scope of this investigation.

Additionally, throughout the investigative process there is evidence and information that are maintained at a very high level of security to ensure the integrity of the investigation. For example, if an arsonist did start this fire, only he/she would know the exact point or area of origin, so we would never release the exact location. That way if someone were to confess, we could challenge the integrity of their confession by having them disclose the exact point or area of origin. Even I don’t know the exact point of origin - don’t want to and don’t need to, in order to protect the integrity of the case. What is ironic is that I was briefed as recently as November 20, 2013, on the latest development in the continuing investigation. Although I cannot disclose the newest development, I will state that information does not support the claim made by Chief Harvey.

People have made comparisons to the Waldo Canyon Fire, which I would like to point out that the Colorado Springs Police Department is the lead investigator in that fire, because the deaths occurred within the city limits. They are the lead agency operating under a multi-jurisdictional task force.

On Thursday, November 21, 2013, I presented to the media a copy of Chief Harvey’s resume, which is very thorough and expansive concerning Wildland fire, structure fire, fire suppression, fire command and numerous certifications supporting those disciplines. However, on his own resume, he listed no certifications or specifies any qualifications as an arson investigator. For the Chief to carry out his own investigation to a point is fine; however, it cannot be used to support any type of prosecution; he has collected no evidence, and by his own admission to my investigators on November 20, 2013, stated he has no specific evidence to present to support his claim.

I can assure you he absolutely did know there was an ongoing investigation, as he had shared that with local media representatives, as well as complained regularly that our investigators had not kept him in the loop. As I have stated, for the preservation and integrity of a criminal investigation, he would not have been given intimate details, nor would any other firefighter or non-certified investigator. If he had experience with criminal investigations he would know this. Furthermore, if any individual would like to review documents, records, or even some recordings concerning the claims I have made, I will happily present those, so long as they are not directly and intimately related to the investigation.

It is unfortunate Chief Harvey elected to make the claim he did, and in the manner it was made. The citizens of this community deserve to be presented with timely and accurate, indisputable information that can withstand judicial challenges. I feel that to give information based on personal theories and hunches, lacking scientific evidence and/or eyewitness testimony does nothing more than mislead not only the public, but the victims of this tragedy. I have long said I will always provide information that the law allows just as soon as I possibly and legally can.

I am asked by members of the public several times a week for updates on the progress of the Black Forest Fire investigation. I have spoken to hundreds of people in the last week alone, addressing their questions and concerns, which is representative of the interest in this subject. I realize there is a tremendous desire to have answers by those impacted by this fire and it is part of having closure of a traumatic event, however I will never compromise the integrity of an investigation, nor will I compromise the integrity of facts merely to satisfy a desire to have any answer. I would hope the Black Forest Fire Chief and his governing body would recognize this as well.