More than 3 years later, Joergensen trial grinds on

Photo credit @Elko Daily Press

SAN LUIS VALLEY — It has been more than three years since that Wednesday afternoon in June of 2018 when the Spring Creek Fire started in an area between Fort Garland and La Veta in the San Luis Valley. The blaze would go on to ultimately scorch more than 108,000 acres in Costilla and Huerfano Counties and destroy more than 140 structures.

It has also been more than three years since July 2, 2018 when 141 counts of first degree arson were filed in the 12th Judicial District against the defendant, thus beginning a grinding judicial process that, over those three years, has been complicated by multiple recusals, multiple interactions with state, federal and diplomatic agencies, a defendant who has voiced numerous objections and concerns and a judicial system struggling to function in a situation on the edge of lockdown.

How complicated and drawn out have the proceedings been so far? The register of actions – the court document that reflects all hearing and related motions and orders – is currently 65 pages long.

The name of the defendant is well known by now as is his account of how the enormous wildfire got its start. Jesper Joergensen, now 55 years old and a citizen of Denmark, claims he was unaware of the fire ban when he used a fire pit to grill food while he was camping. Believing the fire was extinguished, Joergensen then took a nap, waking up  several hours later to the smell of smoke. He allegedly rushed outside, and, unable to extinguish the fire himself, called 911. Numerous reports state that when firefighters arrived on the scene, the flames had engulfed vegetation and surrounding trees were on fire.

Joergensen was arrested without incident on July 1, 2018 by Costilla County Sheriff’s Office deputies.

That fire would not be contained for two more months, making it, at the time, the third largest fire in state history with a price tag of roughly $32 million.

Not long after he was arrested, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that Joergensen had overstayed his visa in the country, causing him to be classified as an illegal immigrant.

From the beginning, there were unavoidable complications in the process. The bench of the 12th Judicial District had to be recused as at least one judge owned property in the area impacted by the fire. As a result, District Judge Gregory Lyman of the 6th Judicial Distract was assigned to preside over the case.

Two months after being arrested, the first preliminary hearing was held and the case, seeming to move through the system at a reasonable pace, was bound over to district court for trial.

However, in December of 2018, the court received a letter from Joergensen, presumably asking for representation by different counsel, preferably someone not connected with the public defenders’ office with more experience and who is not connected with either judicial districts where the fire caused damage.

The court complied, and alternative defense counsel was appointed – namely, David Lipka and Jane Fisher-Byrialsen.

There was then discussion of a second preliminary hearing for new criminal charges that had been filed. However, at that same time, there was also discussion among counsel for both the defense and the prosecution of the need for an evaluation to determine Mr. Joergensen’s competency to stand trial.

Early in 2019, the court ordered a suspension of all proceedings pending an evaluation of Joergensen’s competency, which was scheduled to be done at the state hospital. The evaluation was ordered to be completed by May.

In April, DA Newmeyer-Olson told the court they are seeking “restoration services”, a legal term (in this situation) referring to a defendant who has been deemed incompetent to stand trial receiving “treatment and training” that will enable him to stand trial.

In April of 2019, and for a number of months following, there is a prolonged delay in getting Joergensen transferred to the state hospital, exacerbated in part by motions to have the state hospital show cause for the delay in admitting him, motions that the evaluation be videotaped, which cannot be done where he was being held in the Arapahoe County Jail, confusion around approval for Joergensen to appear in court by telephone, a subsequent order for Joergensen to be transferred by the Costilla County Sheriff’s Office followed by Joergensen’s refusal to be transferred.  Motions often caused at least a several week delay before a new hearing could be set, all taking place in a judicial system that is forced, because of the pandemic, to conduct business completely by phone or online..

Then, toward the end of 2019, the original prosecuting DA for the 12th Judicial District, Crista Newmeyer-Olson, was appointed by the governor to be a District judge. Polis subsequently appointed her former Assistant DA, Robert Willett, as the new DA in Judicial District 12.

However, DA Willett also had to be recused from the case due to property ownership and the potential of a conflict of interest. Henry Solano, the District Attorney for the 3rd Judicial District, which includes Huerfano County, stepped in as special prosecutor at Willett’s request.

Throughout 2020, there were additional hearings related to more evaluations – and all the complexities that includes – as well as the improbability of proceeding at a normal pace given the problems presented by the pandemic.

All of these proceedings – too numerous to list -- led up to the most recent hearing held this week. Numerous evaluations have been held and reports written, including the most recent one which states that, in the opinion of the physicians involved, Mr. Joergensen needs to be on medication in order for restoration services to be possible and him deemed competent to stand trial.

But, based on court interactions, Mr. Joergensen is refusing medication, which is requiring the Attorney General’s office, on behalf of the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (aka the state hospital), to file a petition related to the issue of “forced medication”.

That petition must be reviewed by a different court, the outcome of which may potentially impact the progress of the case looming over them all – criminal charges related to arson and the Spring Creek Fire.

The date for that court to hear the petition is sometime at the end of August or the beginning of September. Consequently, the next hearing for Jesper Joergensen and defense counsel plus special prosecutor Mr. Solano and DA Payne, is set for September 8th.

Meanwhile, according to people who live in Forbes Park, one of the areas hardest hit by the Spring Creek Fire, the forest is restoring itself. Ample rain has resulted in areas that were once filled with juniper, pinyon, sage, and Ponderosa pine now being filled with an explosion of wildflowers.

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