PROVO — Prosecutors say the Taylorsville retiree accused of accidentally starting the massive Brian Head wildfire in 2017 has agreed to plead no contest to a remaining misdemeanor charge, part of a plea deal that recommends probation and a fine.
Robert Ray Lyman, 63, was scheduled to go to trial Thursday, but the trial was cancelled after he settled with the state, court records show.
His anticipated plea to burning without a permit, a class B misdemeanor, comes after prosecutors last month dropped a heftier reckless burning count for insurance purposes. They say the move will help ensure that neighbors who lost their cabins can be compensated and the government can recoup firefighting costs that totaled more than $30 million.
“Our focus in this case has become and has always really been making sure the victims are whole,” said Iron County Attorney Chad Dotson. “The criminal case just was not going to be the vehicle to show the extent of the damage with Mr. Lyman.”
He said attorneys were finalizing the plea paperwork with Lyman’s defense attorney Wednesday before sending it on to Provo’s 4th District Court.
Lyman’s attorney, Andrew Deiss, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Authorities have said Lyman used lighter fluid to burn a pile of brush around his home on June 17, 2017, but the fire raged out of control and torched more than 100 square miles and over a dozen homes near the southern Utah resort town of Brian Head. Some of the lost cabins were built for luxury getaways, while others were much more rustic, Dotson said.
A conviction based on reckless conduct can allow insurers to reject a claim, so Dotson’s office dropped the reckless burning charge. It now plans to ask Utah lawmakers to tweak the criminal code to avoid such problems in the future. The new law Dotson and his colleagues envision would mirror that of other states, stipulating that mere negligence fits a class A misdemeanor offense, rather than the heftier standard of recklessness.
Lyman’s attorney had formally asked a judge to toss the case, arguing in a motion to dismiss that the law his client is accused of breaking is vague, at times contradictory and poorly written.
But prosecutors don’t see it that way, said Shane Klenk, Iron County chief deputy attorney. They believe they would have won at trial, yet “there’s some conflict there between the interest of justice and making victims whole,” Klenk said.
Lyman was originally charged in Cedar City, but a judge there transferred the case to a new judicial district after Deiss argued comments on social media and online news stories showed Lyman is hated in Iron County and might not get a fair trial.