Carbondale rancher not guilty of arson

Friends and family members of a Carbondale rancher emitted audible sighs of relief Friday after a jury cleared him of criminal charges in connection with a wildfire in which a fisherman was injured and several homes were damaged.

After a two-week trial, a 12-person jury deliberated just a few hours before finding Larry Gerbaz not guilty of felony and misdemeanor arson charges.

Prosecutors had said a debris-pile fire Gerbaz set on April 12, 2008, flared up three days later and caused a wildfire that resulted in head and hand injuries to Larry Garfinkel.

Gerbaz’s defense attorneys argued that he had put out his fire, and that many people had been doing spring burning in the area at the time and could have been responsible for the blaze.

Juror Deidra Mann said contradictory testimony and other evidence left it unclear where the fire had begun.

“Everybody had their own idea where it started and their own theory of how it happened,” Mann said.

Gerbaz did not testify in the trial and declined through his attorneys to comment after the verdict.

District attorney Martin Beeson said he felt obligated to bring the felony-level charge because of the injuries to Garfinkel. In closing arguments, defense attorney Tom Silverman said the prosecution was overzealous and relied on an unprofessional investigation that focused on Gerbaz while ignoring facts to the contrary.

“This is the most ridiculous, meritless charge of arson ever brought,” Silverman said.

He told jurors later, “What did they spend on this (prosecution) and not do the job?

Outrageous. They ought to have an accounting.”

Beeson said the evidence against Gerbaz was clear, and he doesn’t second-guess himself in charging decisions.

“It’s difficult for citizens to sit in judgment of another citizen, especially in cases where there was no criminal intent,” he said.

“I’m happy for Mr. Gerbaz, but at the same time I’m hoping that he has learned from this experience,” Beeson said.

He said he hopes the incident causes Gerbaz and the public at large to think more carefully about taking the proper steps to protect others during burning.

Gerbaz still faces civil lawsuits that were filed by Garfinkel and homeowners whose homes were damaged by the fire.


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