DENVER — A former U.S. Forest Service employee's confession that she started the largest fire in Colorado's history will be admissible when her trial begins in January, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
The attorney for Terry Lynn Barton, 38, had sought to suppress her confession, claiming that she was effectively in the custody of federal investigators when she gave it and had not been read her Miranda rights to remain silent and seek an attorney.
But U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch agreed Thursday with prosecutors that Barton freely admitted starting the fire in June during questioning by Forest Service criminal investigators. Barton immediately was advised of her Miranda rights after confessing and was arrested the next morning.
Barton, who has since been fired, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of willfully setting fire to timber, underbrush and other materials that turned into the 137,000-acre Hayman fire that burned for weeks 40 miles southwest of Denver, destroying 133 homes.
Barton worked as a forest protection officer in Pike National Forest. She initially was credited with discovering what she said was an out-of-control campfire that she attempted to extinguish.
But during her third interview with investigators, who said her account didn't add up, Barton tearfully admitted that she put a match to a letter from her estranged husband, igniting the fire.
Barton made her admission while being questioned by two Forest Service investigators who employed a "good cop, bad cop" interview approach.
Warren R. Williamson, Barton's public defender, argued Thursday that, because investigators had taken her to an isolated location--the origin of the fire--to question her and did not allow a supervisor to accompany her, Barton was effectively "in custody" and should have been advised of her right to remain silent.
But the investigators testified that Barton was told she was free to leave if she wanted.
After hearing the testimony, the judge ruled that while the investigators strategized on how to elicit a confession from Barton, her admission was not coerced.
If convicted on all four counts in connection with the blaze, Barton faces a mandatory prison term of at least 17 years.
The Hayman fire was one of three devastating blazes across the West this summer in which people face federal prosecution for allegedly igniting them.
In Arizona, Leonard Gregg, 29, a contract firefighter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, faces trial Nov. 5 in the Rodeo fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation near Show Low. Federal prosecutors allege Gregg started the blaze to make money as an $8-an-hour firefighter. Gregg could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors decided not to charge a hiker for starting the nearby Chediski fire, which merged with the Rodeo fire. Collectively they burned about 469,000 acres, destroying nearly 500 homes and forcing the evacuation of about 30,000 people. The U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix concluded that Valinda Elliott, who was lost in the reservation's woodlands for two days, showed no criminal intent when she started a fire to attract the attention of a news helicopter, which rescued her.
And in California, a 45-year-old Bakersfield woman faces federal prosecution for allegedly building an illegal campfire in July that touched off the 150,000-acre McNally fire in Sequoia and Inyo national forests. Peri Van Brunt told investigators she planned to cook hot dogs but the campfire quickly spread out of control.
Van Brunt faces a maximum prison term of five years if convicted. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Nov. 25.