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Appeals court rules favorably for Fort Lewis professor convicted of setting fire to City Market chip aisle

Bradley Clark has served about half his four-year prison sentence
South City Market in Durango was evacuated Oct. 5, 2019, after someone set fire to the chip aisle. (Durango Herald file)

A former Fort Lewis College professor who was convicted in August 2021 of setting fire to the chip aisle at the south City Market in Durango may receive a new trial after a court of appeals ruled in his favor.

Bradley Clark, 51, is serving a four-year prison sentence at the Sterling Correctional Facility after a jury found him guilty of second-degree arson, attempt to commit first-degree arson and criminal mischief resulting in $20,000 to $100,000 in damages.

Clark

Clark, a former associate professor of political science at FLC, was accused of setting a bag of tortilla chips on fire on Oct. 5, 2019. The fire quickly spread to other bags of chips and resulted in more than $76,000 in damages, including smoke damage to other products.

Chip aisle fires had a social media moment earlier this decade. The bags are highly combustible and spread quickly from one bag to another.

City Market was evacuated shortly after the 8 p.m. fire. No one was injured in the blaze.

It was not the first time Clark had been arrested on suspicion of arson. He was arrested in September 2007 on suspicion of attempting to start a dumpster fire at his townhome complex in Durango. However, he was never formally charged or convicted.

Evidence of the prior arrest was improperly admitted into evidence during Clark’s jury trial, according to a decision issued Thursday by the Colorado Court of Appeals.

As a result, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new jury trial.

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office has six weeks to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court, or the case will be remanded to the District Court in Durango. At that time, prosecutors could re-enter plea negotiations, set the case for trial or dismiss charges.

As part of Clark’s conviction, he was ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution to City Market. It is possible prosecutors could work out a payment plan as part of a possible plea deal.

Clark has served about half his four-year prison term. He was denied early parole at least once, and his next parole hearing is set for sometime in February. Otherwise, he is expected to be released on Dec. 28, 2024, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.

In its decision to reverse Clark’s conviction, the appeals court said the District Court erred in allowing the 2007 dumpster fire to be used as proof of motive. It also erred in allowing a Durango Police Department detective to testify about the dumpster fire, and admitting a search warrant affidavit that contained information about the dumpster fire.

Jurors were exposed to evidence of the dumpster fire on multiple occasions throughout the trial, according to the appeals court. They were allowed to rely on that information to form an inference of bad character about Clark, even though the case was never formally charged or prosecuted, the appeals court said.

“In our view, a reasonable probability exists that the evidence contributed to Clark’s conviction; therefore, the errors were not harmless,” the 19-page decision reads.

A single sprinkler head was able to contain a fire in the chip aisle Oct. 5, 2019, at south City Market. Firefighters assisted in removal of smoke from the building. (Durango Herald file)

During a five-day trial, prosecutors showed video surveillance of Clark pushing a shopping cart throughout City Market, filling his cart with canned chili, lemons, hot dogs, sausages, buns, cheese and enchiladas.

Clark is seen walking down Aisle 7, where the chips are located. He disappears off camera for about a minute, but prosecutors asked jurors to focus on his feet and shadows near the point of ignition.

Clark then went to a self-checkout stand where he could watch chaos ensue, including employees rush to extinguish the blaze, according to prosecutors. He then used a debit card and his City Market value card to pay for groceries, which didn’t include any items from Aisle 7.

“He didn’t have a lawful purpose in Aisle 7,” said Sean Murray, who prosecuted the case, during closing arguments. “He had a criminal purpose in Aisle 7.”

Durango defense lawyer Katie Whitney said law enforcement made a rush to judgment and then “cherry picked” evidence and “edited” surveillance video to meet their narrative.

“We’re basing this on shadows and reflections,” she said, referring to the video surveillance. “We are not basing this on fact.”

The case was overseen by District Judge Suzanne Carlson.

shane@durangoherald.com



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