By SYLVIA LOBATO
SAN LUIS —Danish national Jesper Joergensen, 52, has been bound over for trial as charged on 141 counts of first-degree arson.
A preliminary hearing took most of the day Sept. 19 but was recessed until the morning of Friday, Sept. 21 so retired 6th Judicial District Judge Gregory G. Lyman of Durango could determine the nature of charges against Joergensen.
Lyman is presiding since all of the 12th Judicial District judges recused themselves when it was learned that a fellow court employee lost a cabin in the fire.
There was no debate at the hearing whether Joergensen started a fire at his home, a fire that devastated parts of two counties and consumed some 200 homes. He faces charges in Costilla County, more may be filed in Huerfano.
No matter what happens, he will face charges by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for remaining in the United States with an expired visa.
The question in local courts is whether someone can be charged with felonious first-degree arson if he intentionally started a small fire at his residence, a fire that eventually became the third largest wildfire in Colorado history.
In his closing argument, Assistant 12th Judicial District Attorney Ashley McCuaig said the fire was deliberately started by Joergensen at his own place and in such a manner that it was allowed to take off accidentally.
Joergensen was interviewed twice, McCuaig said. “He knew it was dangerous to start a fire. He knew it would endanger all of us. He knowingly set a fire he knew he shouldn’t set.”
“He knew of the fire ban. He was aware his conduct was wrong. He had an open fire in a tinderbox,” MCuaig told the judge when speaking of Joergensen’s culpability. “He knew of the consequences of the fire — 141 homes destroyed.”
Speaking in Joergensen’s defense, Public Defender James Waldo argued that his client didn’t intend to harm all those people. “He didn’t knowingly start the fire knowing another occupied structure would burn.”
Arguing that the wildfire was started accidentally, not deliberately, the first-degree felony charges weren’t warranted. Waldo argued that arson is a felony in Colorado only if the property one burns or tries to burn is a building or occupied structure, one burns the property with the intent to defraud someone or one commits the arson intentionally or knowingly as opposed to recklessly. Joergensen’s actions didn’t fit, he said.
When contacted June 27, Joergensen first told Costilla County Deputy Karina Garcia and Undersheriff Ricky Rodriguez that he had been burning trash, and then changed his story to having cooked some meat on a grate in one of the fire pits.
The rapidly moving fire burned in excess of 108,000 acres and destroyed more than 141 homes in Costilla and Huerfano counties. Its origin was traced to Joergensen’s home in a remote area about four miles east of Fort Garland.
Two inspectors from the Colorado Division of Fire Protection testified Wednesday that they traced the fire to Joergensen’s place after the fire had already burned its way across part of Costilla County.
Determining the general area where the fire began by studying wind direction, burn patterns and other technical details, as well as information learned at the command center that had been set up at Sierra Grande School between Blanca and Fort Garland, Inspector Colton Balthazor said a team of four inspectors scoured the area thought to be point of origin for the fire.
Balthazor said they determined the general area and located a burned camper, along with a shed, some chairs and other items including two fire pits and a burn barrel.
While evidence taken didn’t support any deliberate action by Joergensen to start the raging wildfire, the inspector said he did start an initial fire by open burning when a Stage One Burn Ban was in effect.
Inspector David Chadwell, tasked with primarily enforcing fire and building code compliance, said he was told to determine the origin of the wildfire.
He said four-man team including himself and Balthazor began working in an area east of Fort Garland on a road identified by other authorities at the command center, following the rustic road, then a small path of a road to a dry creek bed, they studied burn patterns to determine a location near a burned camper.
Studying what they found there, Chadwell said lightning was ruled out, as was a gas generator, which had been unplugged. Examining two underground burn pits and a 55-gallon burn barrel, they found each had been the location of fire at one point, but there was no debris in either pit and inspectors couldn’t find a grate that could have been used for cooking. A fallen tree was found in the area, along with the burn barrel, which was filled beyond capacity and had been on fire.
Extent of the loss
Costilla County Assessor Ronda Lobato said she and two teams of staff members spent “18-hour days” determining structural loss and ownership of damaged property, using tax rolls and photographs to come up with the fact that 141 places had been burned.
She said they got as close as possible to determine if structures listed on the rolls had been lost, damaged or not damaged at all and took photos of each.
The greatest loss was in the Forbes Park Subdivision, she said, and maps were prepared to show the location and extent of tdamage.
Public Defender James Waldo asked if Lobato looked at each lot and she said she did. “It’s my job.”
Inspections are done at the time of tax protests, she said, and photographs are placed on the tax roll, so she had a good idea what was on each parcel. She said some structures were not on the tax roll and weren’t destroyed, while others were completely burned.
Deputy Garcia said she got a call on July 27 that there was a fire east of Fort Garland, so she and Undersheriff Rodriguez responded and encountered Joergensen driving a pickup truck out of the area. “He seemed pretty shaken up,” Garcia said. He didn’t have pants on and put some on when told to by the undersheriff.
He had his dog along and Rodriguez asked if he lived in the area. Joergensen said he did. Asked for some identification, he offered a passport, which was later found to contain an expired visa.
Garcia observed that there were burn holes in Joergensen’s shirt and his chest and arms were burned.
He didn’t stay at his residence, however, Garcia said. “When we returned to contact him, he was gone.”
Joergensen was apprehended at the south side of the Mountain Home Reservoir, where he was sitting in his truck, playing with his dog and watching the fire.
He was booked on suspicion of arson and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed a hold on him due to the expired visa.
In finding probable cause that the crimes had been committed as charged and Joergensen should be tried, Judge Lyman set a first appearance by phone at 10 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 4.
Anyone who was affected by the Spring Creek Fire in Costilla and Huerfano counties is asked to contact Victoria Chavez at the Office of the District Attorney, 719-589-3691 to be placed on a mailing list and keep updated.
In addition, the public defender representing Joergensen pointed out to retired judge Gregory Lyman, presiding following the recusal of all District 12 judges, that Costilla County has a very small jury pool, hinting at a motion for change of venue. Lyman said he had an inclination to deny the hearing.
Joergensen faces 141 counts of felony arson stemming from flames in Costilla County and Huerfano County is expected to add to that total.
He appeared by phone during July for advisement of charges against him in connection with the Spring Fire, which burned more than 107,627 acres of mountain forest and foliage, beginning June 27.
The Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who assisted the sheriff’s office and Colorado Bureau of Investigation in arresting Joergensen, placed an immigration detainer on the suspect —who is from Denmark — and had an expired worker’s visa when arrested.
These detainers are placed on immigrants who are likely up for deporting, as well as immigrants who’ve allegedly committed a crime. Basically, the detainer means ICE would like to take custody of the person if and when they are released from jail for any reason, ICE said.
In an interview following his arrest, the 52-year-old Joergensen, an affidavit said the suspect reportedly told authorities he constructed a fire pit Tuesday, June 26, and said the pit was two feet into the ground, with metal cans to prevent ashes from spreading. He reportedly told investigators he burned some trash, and then claimed to have built a fire to cook meat and put a grate over the fire pit to keep the meat on, which he said he let cook for three hours.
According to arrest documents, Joergensen told deputies he ate the meat and covered the fire pit with dirt to smother the fire. He said he checked the pit at 2 p.m. and stirred the ashes and cans around to make sure the fire was out, but saw no smoke so didn’t think it was a threat. When asked if he had touched the cans to see if they were still hot or put water on the fire to assure it was out, he said he did not.
Joergensen told authorities he had been taking a nap and smelled smoke around noon the next day. He reported seeing a fire burning in some brush 20 feet away from his property. According to the affidavit, he ran toward the blaze and tried to smother it with a blanket but it caught fire, so he threw it into the fire. Burns were found on his chest and ankle, reportedly from his efforts in trying to extinguish the flames.
Thursday morning as Joegensen’s case was debated by phone, a reporter was present representing a Danish newspaper and had some questions; however, due to a gag order, expanded press coverage was forbidden and persons involved were barred from discussing specifics with the media, so further details were unavailable.