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Courts

Jury Convicts Arsonist in 2021 Flathead Lake Fires

Craig Allen McCrea was found guilty of two counts of arson in the Boulder 2700 and Finley fires, which destroyed homes and prompted emergency evacuations near Polson in the summer of 2021

By Maggie Dresser
The twisted and charred remains of a structure taken by the Boulder 2700 Fire along the east shore of Flathead Lake as seen on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A Lake County jury last week found Craig Allen McCrea of Ronan guilty of two felony counts of arson for igniting a pair of destructive wildfires on Finley Point near Polson during the summer of 2021.

Jurors delivered the guilty verdicts Thursday, Feb. 8 and McCrea was remanded to the custody of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.

Missoula District Judge Robert L. Deschamps III presided over the trial. Judge Molly Owen, who was originally supposed to preside over the case, recused herself due to her involvement as a prosecutor when the investigation began, according to Lake County Attorney James Lapotka.

McCrea was found guilty in lighting both the Finley Fire on July 25, 2021 and the Boulder 2700 Fire on July 31, 2021. However, the jury did not convict him of igniting the Jette Fire on July 9, 2021 nor the Boulder 2800 Fire on July 16, 2021.

McCrea on June 9, 2022 pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of arson in Lake County District Court before Judge Owen. Lapotka amended the charges to include a fourth count of arson after an additional wildfire incident was discovered.

Following a months-long investigation, McCrea was arrested in 2022 after the wildfires destroyed dozens of homes, buildings and forest land and prompted hundreds of emergency evacuations on the eastern shore of Flathead Lake on Finley Point during the summer of 2021.

Investigators concluded the Boulder 2700 fire and two other fires were intentionally ignited, pointing to evidence collected by Lake County detectives and fire investigators with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that connected the arson activity to McCrea.

The Boulder 2700 fire burns on the east shore of Flathead Lake on the night of July 31, 2021. Photo by Jayson Pichler

According to charging documents, officials immediately determined the Boulder 2700 fire was human-caused in addition to two other blazes in the same area in the weeks prior. Detectives collected and reviewed 100 hours of video surveillance footage from local businesses and residences to identify and exclude suspects. After securing a warrant to obtain cellular data and location information for a device belonging to Crystal M. Kline, who had a relationship with McCrea, detectives determined she was present during all three fires.

All fires were ignited on lightly traveled forest roads in the middle of the night shortly before they were reported, records state. In addition to the Boulder 2700 Fire, Kline was present at the start of the Jette Hill Fire on July 9, 2021, as well as the Boulder 2800 Fire on July 16, 2021.

In an interview with Lake County Det. Dan Yonkin, Kline admitted to accompanying the defendant to the scene of each fire, believing they were going to the woods to get high. Instead, Kline said McCrea would “hop out of the car and start a fire with a torch,” records state, and that she was afraid to tell anyone because the defendant was physically abusive to her. Kline told Yonkin that McCrea admitted starting the fires to his father, Bob McCrea, with whom he lived and who at the time was employed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Division of Fire.

McCrea was using drugs at the time of the arsons, the investigation revealed, and detectives recovered drug paraphernalia from the scene of one of the fires, which included a straw used to inhale drug vapors that tested positive for fentanyl at the Montana State Crime Lab.

According to charging documents, surveillance video footage obtained by investigators reveals the headlights of a vehicle ascending and descending the steep mountain access road where the Boulder 2700 fire started. Kline’s cellular data linked her coordinates to the scene during the same timeframe.

“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 fifteen minutes later. Phone data shows Kline was at the scene for over an hour before descending down the same switchback logging road,” the charging documents state. “Video shows the headlights descend the road as the fire blows up behind them.”

McCrea’s sentencing hearing had not yet been scheduled as of Feb. 12.

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