BREAKING NEWS: Verdict given on Bear Trap fire on Wednesday, May 1.
A verdict for Kyler Schmitz came less than an hour after the jury left the courtroom to begin their deliberations. The jury found the 24-year-old Billings man not guilty on nine counts of felony arson and alternate charges of negligent arson.
See below for our story on the trial that ran prior to a verdict being given:
A Billings man accused of starting a fire in the Bear Trap Canyon outside of Bozeman that burned more than 15,000 acres began a jury trial Monday to determine whether he is criminally responsible for damage caused by the fire.
Kyler Schmitz, a 24-year-old enlisted Marine Corps member, is charged with eight counts of arson. He also faces seven charges of misdemeanor negligent arson. Schmitz has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Each arson charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail, a $50,000 fine or both.
On the morning of June 25, 2012, Schmitz was at a camp area in the Bear Trap Canyon and reportedly set off an artillery-shell firework that malfunctioned. Rather than flying 700 feet into the air like the firework was designed to do, it only flew ten feet into the air and set fire to dry grass alongside a county road.
According to witnesses, the group of people with Schmitz tried desperately to put out the fire. The group of young adults stomped on flames, threw dirt on the fire and ran coolers full of water back and forth between the Madison River and the fire. Once the fire grew out of control, the group was forced to flee to where they had cell service to call 911.
While Schmitz sits straight up in his chair with precise military-like posture, his defense opens its argument with claims that he immediately took responsibility for the fire, tried to put it out and then cooperated with law enforcement and gave a voluntary statement. The 24-year-old’s defense lawyer also told the jury in its opening statement that even though Schmitz had made a mistake lighting off the firework, there was no malicious intent behind his actions and that he is very remorseful for the damage the fire caused. In addition to no criminal intent, Madison County had not imposed a fireworks ban at the time of the start of the fire.
When Schmitz was charged, he said he wanted to help the landowners who were affected by the fire as much as he could and that he was currently securing as many loans as possible to begin repayment.
The Madison County prosecutor counters these claims by saying Schmitz knew that his actions on the hot, windy day were dangerous and therefore he is criminally responsible for the fire.
The fire caused $4.55 million in property damage, lost income and property value lost. The cost of fire suppression was about $1.25 million. The fire was suppressed by July 2.
The fire consumed public and private property including miles of fence line, a couple’s home, crops, pastures, a vehicle and eight horses.
The jury heard from various witnesses called by the prosecution on Monday and Tuesday who testified to how quickly the fire spread and the extent of damage caused by the blaze. The witnesses included law enforcement from both Madison and Gallatin counties, two young men who helped fight the fire when it started and landowners who suffered damage to property.
Schmitz took the stand in his own defense on Tuesday. He testified he purchased fireworks en route to the campground on June 24. According to his testimony, he didn’t conceal the fireworks from the campground’s attendant when the attendant came by to discuss collecting campground dues.
Schmitz also testified that he had set off fireworks the night of June 24 and that he was not impaired by alcohol at the time of lighting those fireworks. He lit those fireworks in the middle of the road where the campsite driveway intersected with the county road. Schmitz said these fireworks didn’t cause any damage. A firework he lit off later tipped over and skidded across the ground. Schmitz said he was able to stomp out the sparks caused by this. He went on to say no one in the campground complained about fireworks being lit off by Schmitz the night of June 24.
Schmitz said on the morning of June 25 he lit off more fireworks and one of those didn’t function correctly and fizzled out. Later, he said he lit off the mortar-shell type firework that caused the Bear Trap 2 fire.
“At the time I lit that off, the wind had died down,” said Schmitz. “I specifically set it off at that time because the conditions didn’t seem to pose any danger. It came out of the tube and it exploded just above head level. Because of the altitude, it showered sparks and ignited several small spot fires. As soon as it exploded, I ran to the fires and tried to stomp them out and kick dirt on them. And then, I called for help.”
Schmitz continued by testifying that he and the group he was with immediately began to stomp three small spot fires.
“It was a very frantic moment,” Schmitz said. “We started carrying water in coolers to the fires. Anyone without a cooler continued to stomp on the fire.”
The young man went on to tell the court that he felt like he had taken appropriate precautions when lighting the fireworks.
“Generally I would have a shovel available but the coolers with water seemed like a suitable substitute,” he said. “To light off a firework in the middle of a road, on damp grass or over water is what I have been told is the safest place to light fireworks off.”
Schmitz testified that after he had been charged, he returned to the campsite in October 2012 to document where he set off the fireworks. He took pictures of the BLM campground signs to show there were no written warnings concerning fireworks.
At press time, the jury continued to hear from witnesses called by the defense. The trial was expected to conclude on Wednesday.