Arson suspect held on $1M bond for 2021 Flathead Lake area fires

By: - May 17, 2022 4:51 pm

The Boulder 2700 fire burned residences near Flathead Lake. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan.)

Craig Allen McCrea of Ronan has been charged with felony arson and is being held on $1 million bond for starting fires with a torch that led to three blazes last summer, including one that destroyed more than a dozen homes near Flathead Lake, according to the Lake County Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office.

An affidavit filed in Lake County District Court and first reported by Newsy noted cellular data from a witness’ phone showed her being present at the location of the start of each burn “shortly before the fires were reported.” The charges against McCrea, 36, follow an investigation by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribal Fire, according to a news release from the Sheriff’s Office.

“The location of these fires are all remote, lightly traveled forest roads and the fires were all started in the middle of the night,” said the court document.

One such fire was the Jette Hill fire that started July 9, 2021, a burn that fire investigators suspected was caused by arson, the court document said. It said data from the witness’ phone put her at the “remote location where the fire was set” around the time it started. It also said fire investigators sent evidence, a drug straw, from the start of the fire to the State Crime Lab, and DNA was located on the mouthpiece of the straw.

Additionally, the witness’ phone showed her at the scene of another fire start, the Boulder 2800, on July 16, the affidavit said. It said just before she was at the fire start, video footage put her in “a vehicle known to be used by Craig McCrea,” the defendant.

The witness again was in the same vehicle shortly before midnight the night before the destructive July 31 Boulder 2700 fire started, the affidavit said: “Video obtained of the start of the fire shows a single set of headlights creep up the mountain road, switching back as it ascends to the scene of the fire start 15 minutes later. Phone data shows (the witness) was at the scene for over an hour before descending down the same switch back logging road. Video shows the headlights descend the road as the fire blows up behind them around 2:24 a.m.”

The court document noted the fire above Finley Point near Polson spread rapidly and “severe winds” pushed it down to Highway 35: “The fire quickly grew to over a thousand acres and eventually destroyed more than a dozen homes and many more outbuildings and structures.”

In an interview with a detective, the witness admitted she was at the scene of each fire start with McCrea, the affidavit said. It said she told the detective the “defendant would hop out of the car and start a fire with a torch.”

The witness said she did not know McCrea planned to start a fire, and the affidavit said she was afraid to report the fires “because the defendant was physically abusive to her.” According to the affidavit, the witness also said McCrea lived with his father, who at the time was employed by the Tribal Division of Fire.

A swab from the defendant showed a DNA match “to a likelihood of 1 in 425 trillion” with the sample from the evidence at the Jette Hill fire, the affidavit said.

In a brief telephone interview, Chief Deputy County Attorney James Lapotka said McCrea had already been in custody on an unrelated drug possession charge. Lapotka anticipated an initial appearance for McCrea would take place Wednesday.

“He’s in custody before this fire season,” Lapotka said.

McCrea is charged with three counts of felony arson. A person convicted of arson faces a penalty of a maximum 20 years in prison, a maximum fine of $50,000, or both for each count, according to Montana Code Annotated. A judge also may order restitution.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”