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Trial begins Friday for accused arsonist Craig McCrea

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | February 1, 2024 12:00 AM

A jury trial for accused arsonist Craig Allen McCrea begins Friday with jury selection at the Ronan Community Center. The trial gets underway Monday morning at the Lake County Courthouse with opening statements. McCrea is accused of intentionally igniting the devastating Boulder 2700 fire in August 2021, and two smaller fires the month prior.

Around 130 potential jurors are expected to show up Friday for pre-trial screening, or voir dire. Missoula District Court Judge Robert L. Deschamps III will preside over the trial.

The Attorney General’s Office is assisting Lake County Attorney James Lapotka in prosecuting the case. Lapotka anticipates that the trial could last a week. 

McCrea, who is represented by Shandor Badarudden, has been held at the Lake County jail since May 4, 2022, when he was arrested for unrelated drug charges. He was subsequently brought up on three counts of arson and has remained in jail since then with a $1,000,000 bond.

The Ronan man is charged with starting the smaller Boulder 2800 and Jette Hill fires in the month prior to the Boulder 2700 fire. Both damaged forestlands but no structures.

According to a statement from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in May 2021, the Boulder 2700 fire “resulted in the emergency evacuation of hundreds of families, burned down more than a dozen homes and other outbuildings, destroyed thousands of acres of forestland, and has created an ongoing hazardous condition on Highway 35, due to destabilizing the vegetation and causing frequent rocks to fall to the road.”

McCrea has been identified as the sole suspect in all three fires. Detective Dan Yonkin of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office headed the investigation leading to his arrest, working closely with investigators from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' Division of Fire, who helped connect the other two fires to McCrea.

Investigators used surveillance footage from local residents and businesses and cellular data for a phone that popped up at the site of each fire before the blazes began. According to court documents, the phone's owner later told investigators that she was with McCrea when he lit the fires.

If convicted, McCrea faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000 on each count of arson.