FRESNO — Criminal charges were dropped against a bow hunter accused of starting one of California's largest wildfires, a blaze that burned parts of Yosemite National Park, federal prosecutors said Friday.
The decision came after two key witnesses unexpectedly died within months of an indictment that was handed down last year against Matthew Emerald, prosecutors said.
The 33-year-old California man was accused of starting the Rim Fire in August 2013. The blaze burned for two months, scorching 400 square miles, destroying 11 homes and costing $125 million to fight. It ranks as California's third-largest wildfire and the largest in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada.
Prosecutors said that without testimony from the two witnesses, they did not believe they could prove the allegations to jurors beyond a reasonable doubt. Previous statements made by the two witnesses can't be used in court, prosecutors said.
"I understand that the government's motion to dismiss will be frustrating to some," U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a statement, thanking U.S. Forest Service investigators for their work. "It is our obligation to the defendant and to the court to dismiss that case."
Emerald, a resident of the Mother Lode town of Columbia (Tuolumne County), had been bow hunting for deer when he was rescued near the site of the fire's origin by a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection helicopter crew. Investigators had said that in several interviews, Emerald gave them inconsistent stories about how the fire started and once acknowledged starting a campfire that got out of control.
Other times, they said, Emerald described causing a rockslide that sparked the flames, and he also blamed the fire on illegal marijuana growers.
A grand jury handed down a four-count indictment nearly a year after the fire that included charges of lying to investigators and starting a forest fire.
Emerald's defense team had sought to suppress his statements, saying they were coerced. A message requesting comment from Emerald's public defender, Janet Bateman, was not immediately returned. Colleagues said she was not in the office on Friday. Emerald and his parents could not be reached for comment.
One of the prosecution's key witnesses unexpectedly died in a workplace accident in February. He had talked with Emerald shortly after being rescued.
The second witness — the helicopter pilot — died in March of a heart attack, authorities said.
If convicted, Emerald could have spent five years in prison. He has been free since posting a $60,000 bond.
McGregor Scott, a former U.S. attorney in Sacramento who is now in private practice, said it is rare for federal prosecutors to dismiss any indictment because they are generally supported by lengthy investigations.
"They have lots of time to talk to everybody and get all of the relevant information, so once that decision is brought, they're feeling very strong and comfortable about their case," he said.
Scott said during his six years as U.S. attorney, he never encountered a case that was dismissed because two witnesses died. But if the two witnesses were key to the fire case, then prosecutors would be left with no choice but to dismiss the indictment, absent a confession or physical evidence, he said.
Since defense attorneys will not be able to cross-examine the witnesses in this case, their statements cannot be admitted, Scott said.
Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Kristin J. Bender in San Francisco contributed to this report.