Rim Fire suspect pleads not guilty

Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat /

Tuolumne County resident Keith Emerald pleaded not guilty in federal court in Fresno on Tuesday to accidentally starting the Rim Fire, the largest wildfire in the Sierra Nevada's recorded history which burned 402 square miles of national forest and park lands last year.

Emerald was indicted by a federal grand jury on Thursday for violating a forest order banning campfires, then letting that campfire escape and lying to investigators about it.

He turned himself over to U.S. Marshalls Tuesday. He had remained out of custody but in contact with law enforcement since immediately after the fire.

He was deemed to be the only person in the Clavey River drainage near Jawbone Ridge on Aug. 17, the day the fire started in a remote river canyon east of Groveland, according to court documents from prosecutors.

Magistrate Judge Gary Austin ordered Emerald to remain in custody until paperwork is completed to put his and his mother's property on bond for his release. Emerald's property in Montana and his mother's property would be used as collateral.

The property value was to be no less than $60,000, which Emerald's property couldn't cover alone, Austin said.

Weighing on the decision was Emerald's record. He has been arrested at least 11 times. He has several arrests for DUI and drugs and an assault conviction. He was also arrested in Yosemite National Park for allegedly lying to law enforcement while being arrested for drug possession.

"It was repeat offense after repeat offense after repeat offense," Austin said, adding he had some failures to appear in court, resulting in bench warrants.

For the complete story, see the Aug. 13 edition of The Union Democrat.

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