By Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press
A judge on Monday dismissed criminal charges against a Danish man accused of starting a Colorado wildfire that destroyed about 140 homes in 2018 after he was repeatedly found unable to stand trial.
It was not clear what would happen to Jesper Joergensen, who has been diagnosed with delusional disorder, once he is released from the state mental hospital, which was expected to happen later in the day, but he will apparently be a free man.
Senior Judge Gregory Lyman had hoped Joergensen, who was in the country illegally when he was accused of starting the Spring Creek fire while living in his truck and cooking food outside, would be deported if the charges were dropped. However, he said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had no intention of doing that, without elaborating. Despite that and following an unsuccessful attempt to have Joergensen forcibly medicated, Lyman said he believed the law required him to dismiss the case.
Lyman was appointed to oversee the case in Costilla County after judges in the 12th Judicial District were recused in the summer of 2018 because a victim in the case is employed by the district.
A spokesperson for ICE said she did not immediately have details on the case.
Rikke Andresen of the Danish consulate in Chicago said she was aware of what had happened but said she couldn’t comment on the case, including whether the Danish government would offer assistance to Joergensen or help him return to Denmark.
According to court filings, Joergensen has falsely claimed to have had a romantic relationship with the singer Alanis Morissette and that various people associated with her have set him up.
Lyman said he believed Joergensen did not intentionally start the fire and noted that the former U.S. Forest Service worker, Terry Barton, convicted of accidentally starting the Hayman fire that destroyed 133 homes near Denver in 2002, a similarly dry year, was sentenced to six years in prison.
Joergensen has been in custody for nearly four years, since shortly after the fire started and burned more than 156 square miles in Costilla and Huerfano counties, about 205 miles south of Denver. He would likely get a similar sentence if he had gone to trial, Lyman said. Unlike Barton though, Joergensen will not be required to provide restitution to those who lost their homes since he was not convicted of a crime, he noted.
“If punishment was determined by the level of loss to victims, then punishment would never end,” said Lyman, who said he hoped Joergensen would get support to keep him from living in his truck again.
The decision frustrated Tim and Marge Thomsen, who lost their mountain home where they lived for 20 years and had planned to spend their retirement, prompting a big renovation project. The fire hit after a mild and dry winter, right after Tim Thomsen had finished the window trim in the house, and the blaze quickly spread over the parched landscape. They lost all the money they put into their house and were forced to move to the more affordable high desert nearby since they were underinsured, Marge Thomsen said.
“I feel like he’s had more rights than we’ve had,” she said of Joergensen.
Lyman considered dropping the charges against Joergensen early last year after his lawyers said he would be deported. However, he abandoned that idea because of the new Biden administration’s changes that would not make him a priority for deportation.
Lyman then ordered Joergensen to be sent to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, where patients can be forcibly medicated if a judge agrees certain legal criteria are met. He was admitted in June after the normally slow admissions process was slowed further by pandemic restrictions.
In August, another judge allowed Joergensen to be forcibly medicated to treat his significant personality disorder and delusional disorder at the state hospital but reversed the order in December after Joergensen’s lawyers intervened.
According to a court filing by Joergensen’s lawyers seeking to dismiss the case, Joergensen showed “slight improvements” after taking the medication himself at the hospital, to avoid having it forcibly administered.
However, his lawyers argued he would likely regress after being sent back to a county jail where he would stay while standing trial because the jail does not have staff to forcibly medicate people.