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August 15, 2014

Man suspected of starting Rim fire released on bail

A U.S. District Court judge in Fresno allowed for the release Friday of the Columbia resident suspected of starting last year’s massive Rim fire.

A U.S. District Court judge in Fresno allowed for the release Friday of the Columbia man suspected of starting last year’s massive Rim fire.

Judge Gary Austin, who on Wednesday objected to the release of Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, with a cashier’s check, approved his release during a 20-minute hearing on Friday.

After several hours of processing, Emerald was released from the Fresno County jail at 5:47 p.m.

The judge initially asked for a $60,000 bond using real estate owned by Emerald in Montana and by his mother, Debra Emerald, who lives in Sonora. On Wednesday, Debra Emerald brought a cashier’s check to court to secure her son’s release. The money came from her mother, she said. Her mother was going to be paid back by Debra and Barry Emerald, Keith Emerald’s father.

In addition to wanting the real estate as security, the judge wanted assurances that his grandmother, Rose Smith, understood that the money could be forfeited if Keith Emerald violated terms of his release. Smith was not in court Wednesday.

On Friday, Smith told the judge she understood the money could be in jeopardy. Court officials also confirmed that they got a letter from a securities firm indicating that Barry and Debra Emerald had each withdrawn $30,000 in their own retirement funds.

Keith Emerald has been in county jail since he turned himself in to federal authorities on Tuesday.

A federal grand jury indicted him last week for starting the Rim fire last year near Yosemite National Park.

He is charged with setting an illegal campfire that became a blaze that destroyed 257,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. He also is charged with lying to investigators about starting the fire, setting an illegal fire and leaving the fire unattended. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 11 years in federal prison and more than $500,000 in fines.

The defendant pleaded not guilty to all counts at his arraignment. Court proceedings resume Oct. 14.

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