COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Charges were dropped Friday against a man accused of starting a large grass fire that burned one home and threatened many others while lighting off fireworks July Fourth.
The Salt Lake County Attorney's Office filed a motion to drop a charge of reckless burning, a class A misdemeanor, against Richard Otterstrom, 49, of Cottonwood Heights. A 3rd District judge agreed and dismissed the case.
On July 4, embers from fireworks being lit in the area of 7500 South and 3200 East started a brush fire that spread quickly, aided by strong winds. The fire spread through a field behind Mountain View Memorial Cemetery, 3115 Bengal Blvd., engulfed one home and forced evacuations of many more.
Otterstrom was later arrested and charged with lighting fireworks that allegedly sparked the wildfire.
From the time of Otterstrom's arrest until Friday, District Attorney Sim Gill said new evidence and additional facts were presented that raised doubt about whether the Cottonwood Heights man was responsible.
The additional facts called into question whether prosecutors could prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, Gill said.
"Based on the original evidence that was presented and the facts that were presented, we filed the case," he said. "Subsequently, those facts and that evidence were called into question, and it's our ethical duty to not move forward when we feel like we can't prove the case.
"We had no other choice but to dismiss the case."
Otterstrom's attorney, Nathan Crane, said those evidentiary concerns were raised after the defense conducted its own investigation.
"And we were able to show the district attorney that it was physically impossible for our client to have started this fire," Crane said. "My client was lighting off fireworks on the Fourth of July, as were many people in that neighborhood. He was over 240 yards away from where this fire started. And based upon the fireworks he had and the wind conditions, it just couldn't have happened."
Crane said there were other people lighting off fireworks just 25 to 30 yards away from where the fire started.
"The private investigator determined that the Otterstrom house was over 939.6 feet from the origin and cause of the fire, and not 176.5 feet as presented" when charges were screened by prosecutors, according to Gill's formal letter requesting the case be dismissed.
"The private investigator told us he canvassed the Otterstroms' neighborhood and found that many residents were shooting aerial fireworks on the Fourth of July, and (he) showed us the location of the homes on a map. The investigator observed that many of these homes were closer to the origin of the fire than the Otterstrom home," the letter continued.
Having the case dropped is a huge relief to Otterstrom, Crane said.
"There's been this dark cloud hanging over him. He's had his name in the media for something he didn't do. And he is extremely, extremely happy and relieved and feels some vindication," he said.
In his official letter to dismiss the case, Gill notes that if additional evidence is brought to his office in the future that points to another person starting the fire, he will review it and determine whether charges are appropriate.