The trial for a Fort Lewis College professor accused of starting a fire at City Market will remain in Durango after a request from defense attorneys to change the venue was denied Thursday.
Bradley Todd Clark was charged with attempt to commit first-degree arson, second-degree arson and criminal mischief after authorities say he started a fire in an aisle at south City Market, 6 Town Plaza, in October. The fire set off the sprinklers in the store and reportedly caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
Clark pleaded not guilty Oct. 31 and is scheduled for a four-day trial to begin Aug. 24. Clark remains on paid administrative leave “pending the findings of the trial,” according to FLC.
Clark’s defense attorney, Katie Whitney, had filed a motion to move the trial out of La Plata County, arguing that reports in The Durango Herald would give the potential jury pool “undue bias” against her client.
“This isn’t just the reporting about the case, but there have been material false statements by the Durango Police Department being put out by the press,” she said. “That situation is alarming.”
Whitney claimed the Durango Police Department incorrectly made statements that Clark was caught on video in the act of igniting the fire, when he was just caught on video near the scene.
Calls to the Durango Police Department were not immediately returned Thursday morning.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Suzanne Carlson, overseeing the case, said she reviewed the published articles and determined there shouldn’t be any issue holding the trial in La Plata County. She denied the defense’s motion.
“I just don’t think there’s been excessive publicity that would render the trial unfair,” she said. “It tends not to be an issue we can’t get around.”
Carlson suggested including questions during jury selection to determine how much potential jurors know about the case and if they can put those details aside to make a fair verdict.
Much of the conversation during Thursday’s hearing revolved around whether statements from a witness who says Clark was involved in a similar arson incident in 2007 should be included during the trial.
Deputy District Attorney-Appellate Sean Murray said the witness claims Clark and his family moved to an apartment complex in Durango, and shortly after, five dumpster fires were set between March 2007 and September 2007.
Murray said the witness felt intimidated by Clark, who denied starting the dumpster fires when confronted, which was similar to his reaction when confronted by the Durango Police Department about the City Market fire.
“He’s implying to (detectives) that it’s a case of mistaken identity,” Murray said. “But when we look at the odds of this same individual being falsely accused ... it’s very, very low.”
Whitney argued the 2007 fires should not be allowed as evidence during the trial, saying the case was dismissed, no charges were filed and there’s insufficient evidence in police records other than one witness’ statements.
“All we have is a partial file,” Whitney said. “That’s problematic ... and no one in the government is inquiring why the case was dismissed.”
Murray said he has requested all files from the Durango Police Department several times to find out why the case was dismissed, but the records from the 2007 case are incomplete.
Carlson said she would decide on whether the evidence from the 2007 case can be used during the trial in the coming weeks.