Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Ronan man sentenced to 60 years for starting fire that destroyed 14 homes

by Jeff Smith & Kristi NiemeyerFor the Leader
| May 16, 2024 12:03 PM

A Ronan man, and son of one of the most experienced and respected wildland firefighters in the country, was sentenced May 10 in Polson District Court to the Montana State Prison for a total of 60 years with 30 years suspended.

That was the punishment for Craig Allen McCrea, 38, who was convicted by a Lake County jury in February of two counts of felony arson – one of them for the catastrophic Boulder 2700 Fire of July 31, 2021. It destroyed 14 homes and 17 outbuildings, burned for 70 days and consumed almost 2,600 acres. Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate, in some cases for weeks or more.

Judge Dusty Deschamps of Missoula added a parole restriction of 15 years. The state had asked for a 50-year term and a parole restriction of 14 years, one year for each home that was destroyed.

The team of prosecutors for the state included Thorin Geist and Caitlyn Creighton with the Montana Attorney General’s Office, and Lake County Attorney James Lapokta. McCrea was represented by Shandor Badaruddin of Missoula.

McCrea was charged with four counts of arson related to four fires that occurred in July 2021. He was convicted of starting two, the Boulder 2700 Fire and an 18-acre Finley blaze, started July 16 near Evaro. The state dismissed the other two charges towards the conclusion of the sentencing hearing.

According to court records, a wildfire broke out at about 2 a.m. on July 31, 2021, in the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness area above Finley Point, east of Polson. The fire grew rapidly, and when the strong winds shifted, the fire was pushed back down the mountainside to State Highway 35 and toward several homes.

Investigators collected more than one hundred hours of video footage from area businesses in an attempt to identify and exclude suspects. A key piece of evidence came from data collected from cell-phone usage. That data indicated that Crystal Kline, McCrea’s girlfriend at the time, was present at three of the alleged fire starts.

Data gathered from cell-phone usage from other witnesses was also presented at trial, including communications between McCrea and his father, wildlands firefighter Bob McCrea. Investigators also located drug paraphernalia and a pack of cigarettes at one of the fire starts on Jette Hill. A straw used to inhale drug vapors was sent to the state crime lab and DNA matching McCrea’s was located on the mouthpiece of the straw.

After a Lake County detective interviewed Kline and she was advised of her rights, she admitted to being at the scene of the three fire starts with McCrea. Kline said McCrea would “hop out of the car and start a fire with a torch.” 

She indicated that she thought they were just going into the woods to get high and didn’t know McCrea intended to start fires.

AT THE sentencing hearing, Lake County Sheriff Don Bell was the first to testify on behalf of the state. He described how he had experienced wildfires before, but nothing like this.

“In some areas, even the stubble was gone, and the dirt looked like glass,” he said.

He testified about stopping by the Finley Point Fire Hall and seeing three firefighters “staring off into space.” He said based on his training and experience, their body language told him they had gone through something pretty serious. He said that particular fire crew had to “cut and run,” a term the sheriff said means cutting the fire hose-lines and escaping.

He described how the fire crew told him they were surrounded by fire as they made their escape and could feel the heat from the flames inside their water tanker.

Badaruddin’s objection to hearsay was overruled, as rules at sentencing differ from what’s admissible evidence at trial.

The sheriff also described to the court how he paid a visit to that site later and saw where the hose lines were cut, and where the firefighters experienced that life-threatening situation. This was after eight deputies with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office went door to door ordering residents to evacuate the area.

The coordinator for Lake County’s Emergency Services, Mark Clary, described how homes and outbuildings burned with such intensity that they were reduced to a “white ash.” In many cases, as depicted in images shown during the hearing, only masonry chimneys, bed springs or charred appliances remained.

Clary, who has been in the emergency services field his entire career, held back tears as he choked up, describing the impact of telling people they had lost everything.

Steven McDonald, head of Forestry for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said it could take 60 to 80 years before the burn scar returned to near normal. He also spoke of the long-term effects to the habitat, including fisheries and streams. He said nearly 800 acres need to be replanted.

Landslides during heavy rains have affected State Highway 35, mainly between mile markers 8 to 11, ever since and are likely to continue until the scarred areas begin to fill in. One witness, and resident of the area scarred by the blaze, testified that a boulder rolled down and damaged a garage door during a heavy rain.

Another remembered law enforcement telling him he had eight minutes to evacuate. He drove down Hwy. 35, turned in to the Ducharme access road, south of Finley Point, and looked back. “It had already burned to the lake. It was that fast,” he said. “It actually went over my house and around my house. It went down to the lake and came back.”

MCCREA'S PARENTS, Bob McCrea and Carole Lankford, and his stepfather, Tom Lankford, each asked the judge for leniency.

His mother described her youngest son, a twin, as “an all-around good kid” who loved to play basketball, hunt and fish. After high school, he became a firefighter and was working for tribal forestry when he injured his back on the job.

“Everything just kind of fell apart after that,” Lankford said. 

He took Oxycodone for pain relief “and then it just seemed to grow from there. It was just an awful drug, and he got into it pretty heavily.” His drug use eventually “snowballed,” she said, to include meth, heroin and fentanyl.

She credited Lake County Attorney James Lapotka for incarcerating her son. “It saved his life,” she said. After becoming sober, “I see a whole different person in Craig.”

Lankford said she believed addiction treatment would be available through the Tribes, as long as he wasn’t in jail.

His stepfather, Tom Lankford, said McCrea’s family, which includes seven children, needed him.

“Without him, it's like a wheel going down the road and you're missing part of the tire,” he said. “We need everybody in that unit to be functioning.”

His father, Bob McCrea, also advocated for treatment, and said his son’s time in jail had made him “a changed man.”

“I think he's ready to get back into the community and be with his family and his friends and do the right thing in life.”

McCrea also expressed the belief that his son is innocent of arson. “I don't believe my son did it.”

“Well the jury disagreed and I disagree with you,” Deschamps said.

The judge went on to ask, “What do you think of a guy who goes out and deliberately starts a fire? The guy who has done millions-of-dollars-worth of damage, displaces dozens of people, shuts down a community for two weeks, costs the tribes over a million dollars in lost resources. And God knows how much more to firefighters.”

“They should be held accountable,” McCrea replied.

WHEN JUDGE Deschamps asked Geist for his sentence recommendation, Geist first went into McCrea’s criminal history, which included drug possession and distribution convictions, and called the defendant a “peddler of poison.”

He also described how close occupied structures were to the fire start before recommending a 50-year term at Montana State Prison with a 14-year parole restriction. He said the fire suppression costs were $5.8 million before reading a list of individual homeowner losses.

Geist also said prosecutors would not be seeking restitution for insurance companies that have already compensated clients who claimed damages from the fire. Insurance costs have gone up in the area since the fire, a fact that came to light during the hearing.

Badaruddin made a recommendation of 10 years in prison, plus a suspended sentence that would include 500 hours of community service and paying restitution. He also recommended it run concurrently to time McCrea is serving on drug charges.

The judge gave McCrea the opportunity to make a statement before he imposed the sentence.

McCrea referenced his drug use, saying “I started using drugs and kept using, ‘till I got locked up at age 36. I’ve battled with addiction 18 to 19 years of my life. It’s been a long road, for some reason the Lord kept me alive.”

He said when he was first incarcerated, his legs were black and swollen, and that it took him a couple of months to sober up. “I knew God was real because he kept me alive,” he told the judge. “… I knew God gave me a time-out. He put my life back up on a shelf so I could find myself again.”

In the past two years, McCrea said he had been rebuilding his relationships with his seven children, and with his family. “I have faced so much pain and hurt, I masked with my addiction,” he told Deschamps. “I’ve learned that I have to let the pain and hurt from the past go, and just take it one day at a time, and move forward.”

When the judge asked for specifics, McCrea said two of his children’s mothers had committed suicide.

The judge questioned McCrea’s sincerity, adding that the defendant didn’t appear to know where some of his children currently reside, and said that his actions have not matched his words.

The judge also asked how McCrea intended to pay restitution to fire victims.

“Get a job, do community service,” he replied.

After handing down the 60-year prison term, Judge Deschamps gave McCrea credit for having already served 730 days in jail. He also made a recommendation for chemical dependency and mental health treatment.

“I must consider the seriousness of the offense and the criminal history that he's got and his behavior over all these years,” he said during the proceedings. “And now, finally, the chicken's come home to the roost and he's going to have to deal with it. And I'm sorry about that.”

    Craig McCrea, convicted of two counts of felony arson in February, was sentenced to 60 years with the Montana State Prison system last Friday by Judge Dusty Deschamps. (Kristi Niemeyer/Leader)