An ‘outsider’ accused of starting the devastating Brian Head Fire says he can’t get a fair trial in Iron County

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Smoke lingers in the valley where the fire destroyed thousands of acres of forest, north of the southern Utah ski town of Brian Head, Friday, June 30, 2017.

Attorneys for the man charged with starting the Brian Head Fire last year — which burned through more than 71,000 acres, destroyed 13 homes and cost $40 million to fight — are asking a judge to move the trial to a different county.

Robert Lyman will not receive a fair trial in Iron County, his attorneys argued in court papers, because of “hatred” the rural community has expressed in online comments and social media posts for the Taylorsville man accused of accidentally starting the 2017 blaze.

Lyman’s attorneys, Andrew Deiss and Matthew Kaufmann, further argued in a motion filed last week that the fire affected so many Iron County residents — it’s likely some would have to drive past the damage just to get to the courthouse to report for jury duty — that it would be impossible for him to get a fair trial.

“Holding Mr. Lyman’s trial in Iron County would divide that community,” attorneys wrote. “Thus because a jury of Iron County residents will be asked to decide whether an outsider who vacations in their home county is criminally responsible for the fire that burned much of their home county, this factor weighs in favor of a change of venue.”

The attorneys further argued that false rumors that swirled as the fire burned will also affect their client’s ability to get a fair trial. Word spread that Lyman was ordered by a police officer not to burn anything on that June 17 day when the fire started, they wrote, and that he was drunk and refused to let others help him with the fire. And the biggest rumor — that Lyman started the fire with a weed torch — was even shared online by Gov. Gary Herbert.

All of those rumors are false, Lyman’s attorneys contend.

Lyman’s attorneys also argued in court papers that, if convicted, he could be forced to pay $40 million in restitution for starting the blaze. The attorneys called his charges a “sensational crime that carries a punishment of lifelong financial ruin.”

Authorities have said the fire, which forced about 1,500 people to evacuate across Iron and Garfield counties, was sparked by Lyman as he was burning weeds at his Brian Head cabin. Lyman, a longtime West High School head basketball coach and Weber State University assistant basketball coach, was charged in 5th District Court with misdemeanor reckless burning and failure to obtain a permit before burning.

Prosecutors have not filed a written response to Lyman’s motion, and Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

A three-day trial is scheduled to begin in late August.

If convicted of reckless burning, Lyman could face up to a year in jail and a fine. Burning without a permit can result in a fine and up to six months behind bars.