Jury finds Craig McCrea guilty of two counts of felony arson
Craig McCrea, who is accused of four counts of arson, listens as his attorney makes his opening statement in the case Monday morning at the Lake County Courthouse. (Kristi Niemeyer/Leader)
Hagadone News Network | February 8, 2024 12:00 AM
“In Montana, smoke on the air means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Assistant Attorney General Thorin Geist told jurors Monday morning at the Lake County Courthouse. “But in the summer of 2021, that smell meant one thing to the defendant, Craig McCrea. The evidence in this case will show that for Craig McCrea, that smell meant one more fix, one more opportunity to use fentanyl.”
During opening statements in the trial against accused arsonist McCrea, Geist told jurors what to expect from the prosecution as the trial unfolds this week. The jury began deliberations around noon Thursday and emerged nearly five hours later with a verdict of guilty of two of four charges of arson.
McCrea has been incarcerated at the Lake County Jail on a $1 million bond since May 2022 in connection with four fires that started in July 2021. The largest of them, Boulder 2700, burned 2,589 acres, consumed four homes and 17 other structures, and forced the evacuation of Finley Point. The jury found him guilty of starting this fire, as well as a smaller fire on Evaro Hill known as the Finley Fire. They could reach a unanimous verdict on two other fires: one set July 9 on Jette Hill, and another ignited July 16 east of Finley Point, called Boulder 2800.
The prosecution alleges that McCrea started all four fires in an attempt to put more money in the pocket of his father, longtime Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes firefighter Bob McCrea – “Craig’s only source of income,” Geist alleged.
The four fires include a small blaze ignited July 9 on Jette hill; a fire on the east shore of Flathead Lake, Boulder 2800, which started July 16 east of Finley Point along Boulder Creek Road; an 18-acre fire that ignited July 25 on Evaro Hill and was referred to as the Finley fire; and the fourth, Boulder 2700, which started July 31 and was, for a time, “the highest priority fire in the nation,” Geist told jurors.
McCrea’s attorney, Shandor Badarudden, told jurors his client was innocent and suggested instead that McCrea’s girlfriend at the time, Crystal Kline, is the culprit. “She learned that if she can help the government, the state of Montana convict somebody, and in this case, Craig McCrea, of these arsons, she will not have to pay for the crimes that the evidence will demonstrate she committed.”
Badarudden also told the jury that McCrea was a former firefighter who injured himself on the job. He was prescribed narcotic pain relievers and became addicted to those and eventually to fentanyl, heroin, and other illegal drugs (the defendant plead guilty Oct. 31 to criminal possession of dangerous drugs).
McCrea met Kline, his former girlfriend, in a drug treatment program. According to Badarudden, “they got high in places … like the forest. Craig, as I said, grew up here, he knew the forest quite well, enjoyed being in the forest, but he didn't set any fires out in the forest.”
Instead, Badarudden told the jury, “evidence will show that Crystal Kline did, or most likely did, set the fires in this case, at least three of them.”
Jurors initially heard from three wildland fire investigators – two of them employed by CSKT Division of Fire during the 2021 season – who said all four fires were human-caused “hot starts,” meaning no accelerants were used other than matches or a lighter. Nor were they accidentally set or lightning caused.
At the Jette fire, former CSKT fire investigator Frank Gehring testified that he had found an empty pack of cigarettes, a purple straw, tinfoil containing an unknown substance, and merchandise price-tags next to the fire origin, as well as footprints.
Geowarrant and cell towers
Late Monday afternoon, former Lake County Detective Dan Yonkin outlined his investigation into the four fires. He began researching the Boulder 2700 by looking at camera footage from a variety of local businesses from the Finley Point Grill on Highway 93 to KwaTaqNuk Resort in Polson, looking for vehicles approaching and leaving the fie area on Boulder Creek Road during the time frame when investigators said the fire started, after midnight July 31.
A homeowner, who lived on the west side of Hwy. 35 on Skidoo Bay, gave the sheriff’s department footage from his video camera, which was pointed toward the area where the fire started. After reviewing the camera footage over and over, Yonkin noticed that at around 12:04 a.m., a vehicle heading north turned off Hwy. 35 and drove uphill “to the Boulder 2700 location.” He also saw the vehicle return down the mountain and turn back toward Polson not long afterward.
Eventually, he was able to secure a Geofence warrant, which allowed him to ask Google to share data on active mobile devices within a prescribed area – in this case the three areas where the two Boulder fires and the Jette fire began. A separate warrant gave him access to cell-phone tower data that can pinpoint the location of a particular device at a particular time.
He identified a device that “pinged” from all three areas around the time each fire started, and with another warrant, discovered that the phone belonged to Kline, and was paid for from a credit-card account under Bob McCrea’s name.
When officers first interviewed Kline in 2022 at the probation office in Anaconda, she denied being present at any of the fire starts.
Eventually, she agreed to provide a DNA sample and to stage a recorded “pretext call” with Craig and Robert McCrea, which also requires a warrant. The first two calls that were played Tuesday morning for the jury were recordings of conversations with the senior McCrea, who advised her to deny any connection to the fires.
“They’ve got to visually see you light the fire to prove it,” he told Kline, citing two local cases when suspected arsonists were not convicted of the crime due to lack of eye-witness evidence. “There’s no way to prove it unless you break.”
During her recorded conversation with Craig McCrea, the suspect also advised her “deny, deny, deny Crystal.”
“The only way they get you is if we fold,” he said.
The prosecution also played a recording of an interview between Lake County detective Erwin Lobdell and Craig McCrea, dated May 10, 2022, in which McCrea said repeatedly, “I didn’t light no fires.”
The jury heard testimony from additional witnesses, including Robert McCrea and Kline, before final arguments were delivered Thursday morning.
Retired Missoula District Court Judge Robert L. Deschamps presided over the case and sentencing is tentatively set for May. McCrea could face a prison term of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $50,000 for each count of arson. He remains incarcerated in the Lake County Jail.