On Friday morning, a Colorado judge ordered more evaluations for a mentally ill Danish man accused of starting the massive 2018 Spring Fire.
Jesper Joergensen, 54, a Denmark native, was arrested on July 7, 2018 and was charged on July 12 with 141 felony arson charges in connection to the Spring Fire. The wildfire grew to more than 108,000 acres and destroyed more than 130 homes in southern Colorado near Fort Garland and La Veta.
Last week, Sixth Judicial District Court Judge Gregory Lyman said during a hearing that he was weighing if he would dismiss criminal charges against Joergensen. He decided to hold off on this action during Friday's hearing.
On Friday morning, Attorney Cynthia Kowert with the prosecution said the people filed a new motion that morning. She said based on conversations she had with two ICE agents, executive orders from President Joe Biden state that ICE agents would not seek out Joergensen.
"In fact, even if he was released, they would not take actions to deport him," she said.
That could change in the future, but that's the present situation, Kowert said. If he was released, he would live freely wherever he wanted, she said, and would not be deported in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the people have asked for a cell hearing.
"The bottom line is, your Honor, is that if the case is dismissed and he is released, (whether to) the citizens of Colorado or somewhere else in the United States, he is danger regardless of what the experts may say in regard to whether he's a danger when he's in custody or when he's out of custody. The people believe he is a danger and so we would ask that that not happen."
In response, Joergensen's lawyer, Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, said she was unable to get in contact with the ICE agents Kowert had talked with and claimed what the "secret ICE agent" said was untrue and not the law. She argued that there is a 100-day moratorium on removal — not apprehension or detention. She explained further that the court cannot force ICE to do anything, since that is federal jurisdiction.
Fisher-Byrialsen said every physician — seven in total, she estimated — who has examined Joergensen had determined that he is not a danger to himself or others and does not meet the criteria for civil commitment. In addition, he does not have a criminal record, she said. As of Friday, he had been in restorative treatment for 736 days and in custody for 960 days.
She concluded saying the new motion from the people does not bring in any new evidence and the judge shouldn't entertain it.
Kowert responded saying that it's important to consider the people's contention. She said the court can and should consider the safety of its citizens.
After hearing both sides, Judge Lyman said there was a wide assumption that if the case was dismissed, Joergensen would be held in ICE custody and likely deported to Denmark since he overstayed his visa. If the charges were dismissed Friday, Joergensen would be released into the community without restriction, he said.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the court taking in the possible consequences of its decision," he said.
He said of the six or seven experts who evaluated Joergensen, all but one expressed their opinion that he was presently incompetent to proceed and had been that way since the beginning of the investigation into his incompetency.
Now the issue becomes what is the likelihood of restoration to competency, Judge Lyman said. The evaluation experts don't have an unanimous opinion on this, he said.
"I share concerns of his safety in the community," Judge Lyman said. "I presided over the preliminary hearing and I found probable cause based on the evidence, and consistent with Mr. Joergensen's presumption of innocence, I still found probable cause to believe that the defendant committed these offenses. That's ultimately up for a jury to determine if we can ever get there."
He said he was not comfortable dismissing the charges Friday.
"I don't know if he's a danger outside his current custodial situation," he said.
Judge Lyman also ordered Joergensen to be transferred to the Mental Health Institute in Pueblo for further evaluation and to see if he may become competent in the foreseeable future. This includes exploring the possibility of forced medication.
A review hearing is scheduled for March 8 at 10 a.m.
As the case makes its way through the court system, some of the victims have started to rebuild. Larry Morgan lost his home in the Spring Fire, which was located on a piece of property that's been in his family since the mid-1970s.
"We’ve been doing all right, but we’re still struggling trying to get things around here back to normal, so it has taken some time," said Morgan.
Morgan said he's been more focused on rebuilding than keeping up with the case.
"He didn’t intend, he didn’t intend to burn our house down," said Morgan. "Like I said, it was an accident, I think and Mother Nature took over and did her wrath and that’s what we’ve got to deal with.”
At the time of the fire, Joergensen's visa had allegedly expired, so Immigration and Customs Enforcement put an immigration detainer on him following his arrest. He had told authorities he had built a fire pit that got out of control. According to an arrest affidavit, Joergensen had burn marks on him when deputies first found him and changed his story several times when talking with authorities.
"Shipping him back out of the country would probably be the most rewarding part for us," said Morgan.
In mid-January, Fisher-Byrialsen asked the judge to dismiss the case, saying that doctors found Joergensen unable to stand trial three times because of his mental health. Fisher-Byrialsen also said his delusional disorder makes him refuse to take medication. Prosecutors said they wanted to look into the possibility of doing an evaluation in jail or possibly forcing him to take medication. Come early February,
At the time, the Spring Fire was the second-largest single (non-complex) fire in Colorado history. After the 2020 wildfire season, it was bumped down to the fifth largest wildfire in Colorado history.
These are the state's 10 largest wildfires, ranked by acreage:
1. Cameron Peak Fire (2020): 208,913 acres
2. East Troublesome Fire (2020): 193,812 acres
3. Pine Gulch Fire (2020): 139,007 acres
4. Hayman Fire (2002): 137,760 acres
5. Spring Fire (2018): 108,045 acres
6. High Park Fire (2012): 87,284 acres
7. Missionary Ridge Fire (2002): 72,962 acres
8. 416 Fire (2018): 54,000 acres
9. Bridger Fire (2008): 45,800 acres
10. Last Chance Fire (2012): 45,000 acres
Note: The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center said the West Fork Complex fire, which burned a total of 109,632 acres in 2013, is not included on this list since it involved three separate fires.