Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Jury finds Craig McCrea guilty of igniting Boulder 2700 fire

Editor | February 15, 2024 12:00 AM

Former firefighter Craig McCrea was found guilty last Thursday on two of four counts of arson after a dramatic four-day trial at the Lake County Courthouse.

The jurors emerged midway through deliberations to tell Judge Robert Deschamps that they were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the four counts. He counseled the jury members to return and “collaborate,” noting that the instructions “to not surrender your honest convictions does not mean you should avoid your honest task.”

When they returned to the courtroom after total of about five hours, the jury unanimously determined that McClure was guilty of starting the approximately 18-acre Finley fire on Evaro Hill and the devastating Boulder 2700 fire, July 31 on the east shore of Flathead Lake. The latter blaze burned 2,589 acres, consumed 14 homes and 17 other structures, and forced the evacuation of Finley Point.

The other two charges, which did not yield unanimous verdicts, pertained to a small blaze ignited July 9 on Jette Hill and a fire on the east shore of Flathead Lake, Boulder 2800, which started July 16 just off Boulder Creek Rd. Fire investigators told jurors that all four were “hot starts,” fires that were intentionally set with matches or lighters.

Some of the most dramatic testimony came Wednesday afternoon, when the defendant’s father, longtime CSKT wildlands fire specialist Bob McCrea, took the stand. He testified that his son had been a firefighter until he was injured on the job and became addicted to opioid painkillers and then to fentanyl and heroin.

McCrea, who has been involved with fighting fires since 1966, testified that his son had asked him how hard it would be to catch someone starting a fire. “He probably heard me say that arson is the most difficult to catch because realistically you’d have to see a person lighting the fire to know that’s the person who did it,” the senior McCrea said.

He also acknowledged asking his son if he was lighting the suspicious fires that were cropping up around the Flathead Reservation the summer of 2021. “I said are you doing this, and he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Dad, I’d never do anything like that.’”

The senior McCrea was shown two photos of a tall man entering and leaving Grey Wolf Casino at the top of Evaro Hill on July 16, around the time the Finley fire started. Asked if he recognized the man, Bob replied, “It could be my son Craig. I’m not 100% sure.”

McCrea also confirmed that he was driving south through Schall Flats, near Arlee, when he noticed the fire and called it in to CSKT dispatch.

He also confirmed that his son was living in his house during the summer of 2021, was unemployed, and that he frequently gave his son money. Asked if he knew that his son was probably using the money to purchase drugs, he replied, “I was an enabler. Yes.”

In prior testimony, the jury learned that the defendant was addicted to fentanyl at the time the fires were started. The prosecution had alleged that his motive for starting fires was to help his dad earn more money, which the younger McCrea could use to purchase drugs.

The jury also heard from the defendant’s girlfriend at the time, Crystal Kline, who testified that while she had not witnessed him actually start a fire, she had been in the vehicle with him at three of the four locations when fires were started.

Former Lake County detective Dan Yonkin testified that by tracing pings from cellphone towers and utilizing GPS data, he had been able to locate Kline’s phone at Jette Hill, and the Boulder 2800 and 2700 fires at about the time the fires started. Her phone was in her hometown of Anaconda when the Finley fire started on Evaro Hill, although Yonkin did track a call between McCrea and his dad from the Evaro cellphone tower around the time that fire started.

Video footage that Yonkin reviewed showed a white Dodge truck travelling up the Boulder road and returning to Polson at the same time both fires in that area started. A white Dodge was also parked in the Grey Wolf parking lot and was seen on video footage driving toward and returning from the site where the Evaro fire started.

Drug paraphernalia with McCrea’s DNA was found at the site of the Jette Hill fire, and a knife was found near the first Boulder fire that Kline said belonged to her former boyfriend. However, the knife and sheath had been picked up by a fire investigator, who acknowledged that he did not use gloves when he collected the potential piece of evidence.

Assistant Attorney General Thorin Geist, part of a three-person prosecutorial team, asked jurors Thursday, “When does coincidence stop being a coincidence?” And after reviewing the circumstantial evidence connecting McCrea to the four fires he urged jurors to add up “all of the coincidences,” and reminded them that circumstantial evidence – contrary to what McCrea told his son – was as valid as direct or eye-witness evidence.

McCrea’s attorney, Shandor Badarudden, urged jurors to find the defendant non-guilty. He suggested that Kline and another key witness, Ashley Mitchell, had each agreed to testify in exchange for an unspoken agreement with law enforcement to lighten their charges for drug possession, and that because the pings at three locations were connected to Kline’s cellphone instead of McCrea’s, she was likely to have started those fires.

McCrea has been incarcerated at the Lake County Jail on a $1 million bond since May 2022 in connection with the four fires. On Oct. 31, he pled guilty to a felony charge of possession of dangerous drugs.

Judge Deschamps tentatively set sentencing for May, and told attorneys that victims of the Boulder 2700 fire could be allowed to testify.

McCrea could face a prison term of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $50,000 for each count of arson.

    Former Lake County Deputy Dan Yonkin looks on as Bob McCrea testifies during last week's jury trial of his son, Craig McCrea, on four counts of arson. Yonkin's investigation was key to McCrea's conviction on two of the four charges. (Kristi Niemeyer/Leader)