DENVER – A Denmark native will stand trial for 141 counts of arson for the homes and buildings destroyed in the third-largest wildfire recorded in Colorado, a judge ruled Friday.
Senior Judge Gregory Lyman’s decision comes after a Wednesday hearing to determine whether the evidence supported charging Jesper Joergensen with first-degree arson.
The fire destroyed more than 156 square miles after starting in late June east of Fort Garland, about 205 miles south of Denver.
Joergensen, 52, has denied intentionally starting the fire. His attorney, James Waldo, argued during Wednesday’s hearing that Joergensen should not face felony arson charges because he did not mean to cause the damage from the wildfire, the Alamosa Valley Courier reported .
Waldo did not immediately return a phone message Friday seeking comment on the decision.
Joergensen initially told police that he started a fire to burn trash, according to court records. He then said he was grilling food in a permanent fire pit the day before the wildfire started but believed it was out.
Prosecutors said Joergensen knowingly set a fire when there was a ban on all open flames.
Joergensen’s decision to start a fire for any reason amounted to “having an open fire in a tinderbox,” Assistant 12th Judicial District Attorney Ashley McCuaig said during Wednesday’s hearing.
Officials announced in early September that the fire had been fully contained. Joergensen was charged with 141 counts of arson because that was the number of homes and other structures officials knew had been burned at the time, though the final tally was unclear Friday.
Lyman is retired from the Sixth Judicial District in Southwest Colorado but is overseeing Joergensen’s case because all local judges were disqualified from hearing it.
The judges faced a potential conflict of interest because an employee of the judicial district is “one of the potential victims of the crime,” according to court records.
Joergensen is due back in court Oct. 4. He remains in jail, and federal immigration authorities also have placed a hold on him.
U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents have said Joergensen’s visa expired and he is in the country illegally.