Bail payment for Rim fire suspect fails to satisfy judge

08/13/2014 5:58 PM

08/13/2014 7:25 PM

A U.S. District Court judge on Wednesday refused a bail payment for the Tuolumne County man accused of starting the Rim fire near Yosemite National Park last year because it was a cashier’s check.

Judge Gary Austin said Keith Emerald, 32, of Columbia and his mother, Debra Emerald, were asked Tuesday at Keith Emerald’s arraignment to use equity in their homes as security for a bond.

Keith Emerald is charged with setting an illegal campfire that turned into the Rim fire, which destroyed 257,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite. He also is charged with lying to investigators about starting the fire, setting an illegal fire and leaving the fire unattended. He faces a maximum of 11 years in federal prison and more than $500,000 in fines. He entered a not guilty plea to all counts at his arraignment.

But instead of using home equity for the bond, Emerald’s grandmother loaned his parents $60,000, which they planned to repay after they extracted money from their retirement funds.

Emerald’s lawyer, Janet Bateman, said the retirement money would take a few days to obtain.

But Austin refused to take the cashier’s check without assurances the check would not be rescinded if the government needed to claim it. And, Austin said, he wanted assurances from the grandmother that she was aware of all the conditions of Emerald’s release and the potential for losing the money if Emerald violated the terms of his release.

He said he wanted a property bond because it offers a sense of “buy-in” from the family and offers the court security.

The judge said he ordered the bond because Emerald had failed to appear in court and violated probation on more than one occasion.

Bateman said the family knew the risks. Debra Emerald, who lives in Sonora, volunteered to telephone her mother during the hearing so the judge could speak with her.

But the judge instructed Keith Emerald’s mother, father and grandmother to return to court Friday afternoon for a hearing. His mother was the only one of the three present Wednesday.

Austin ordered court officials to prepare a report that includes a letter from the bank and assurances that the money will be available if a violation occurs and that the check can’t be revoked.

Emerald will remain in the Fresno County Jail until he can bail out.

Bateman told the judge that Keith Emerald was supposed to start a new job Wednesday and will have to change his start date again.

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