SALT LAKE CITY — A Taylorsville man charged with accidentally starting a wildfire near Brian Head last summer has asked a judge to transfer his case outside Iron County, saying online comments show he is hated in the rural community.
The blaze torched more than 100 square miles and over a dozen homes, affecting so many people in the county that it's likely Robert Ray Lyman, 61, may not get a fair trial, his attorney, Andrew Deiss, wrote in a motion filed Thursday seeking a venue change.
Deiss argued that after Gov. Gary Herbert announced on Twitter the blaze had been started by a torch, news reports "perpetuated the false rumor that a 'weed torch' sparked the fire," with some going so far as to call it a "flamethrower."
Social media posts, comments on news stories and an online poll about possible penalties for the person who sparked the fire "all reflect a strong hatred for Mr. Lyman," according to Deiss.
He argued the odds of a fair trial are lower because Lyman is an outsider who does not have a strong social network in the small resort town of 100 or the surrounding county of 50,000. Lyman, formerly a basketball coach and teacher at Salt Lake City's West High School, has lived in the Salt Lake area for years and his cabin near Brian Head is a vacation property, his attorney said.
Lyman is charged with reckless burning that put human life in danger, a class A misdemeanor, and burning without a permit, a class B misdemeanor.
As the fire spread, "unfounded rumors" unfolded online, including that Lyman had been drunk when he sparked the blaze and that an officer had ordered him not to burn anything, Deiss wrote in court documents. He cited news coverage of the wide-reaching effects of the blaze that cost more than $30 million to fight and forced 1,500 people to evacuate. State officials said the person who sparked the fire may be responsible to cover the costs.
Included in the court filing are several social media posts and online comments on news stories, including one that reads "Is the guy who started this a complete moron who should at LEAST serve jail time? Absolutely."
Deiss alleges that widespread, inaccurate reports of a weed torch starting the fire "conjured the image of a man pointing an open flame at weeds intermingled with grasses, hidden beneath shrubs, and tufted around trees." He said his client in reality used a lighter in order to protect his property from an approaching wildfire by creating a fire break and destroying potential fuel, but the flames spread beyond his home on June 17, 2017.
Investigators determined a torch did not spark the blaze, confirmed Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. But he said he did not know exactly how the brush ignited. A message left with Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett was not immediately returned Monday afternoon.
A spokesman for Herbert declined comment.
If convicted on the reckless burning count, Lyman could face up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Burning without a permit can result in up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. A three-day trial is set to begin Aug. 29.