A woman enjoying the view from Table Rock on a warm summer night last year watched as a man walked in front of the vehicle she was sitting in and lit a green-colored firework, which spewed gold and silver sparkles that danced across the ground.
“She then watched that firework tip over and move into the brush and start flames near the vehicle she was in,” Tamera Kelly, a deputy Ada County prosecutor, said Wednesday during a court hearing.
The woman, said Kelly, later identified Taylor Kemp as the man she saw light the firework and cause the June 30 fire, which burned more than 2,500 acres, destroyed a home and threatened dozens more and blackened the well-known Boise Foothills landmark.
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Charged with violating Ada County’s fireworks ordinance, Kemp, 19, was scheduled to go to trial on Wednesday. But Magistrate James Cawthon postponed the trial after defense attorney Donald Price said he did not learn until Monday that the woman would be called to testify.
Price also told Cawthon that a defense expert he plans to call to the stand hasn’t finished his analysis of the circumstances behind the start of the fire.
“Mr. Kemp wants to present a vigorous defense and he cannot do that today,” Price said.
Kelly told Cawthon that Price has known the substance of the woman’s story since October. She objected to a delay, saying prosecution witnesses were present elsewhere in the Ada County Courthouse and were ready to go on the stand.
“Based on what was disclosed back in October, it is not a surprise at this point that this witness has the ability to identify, potentially, the defendant in this case,” Cawthon said.
Still, the judge said he did not want to begin the trial if the defense wasn’t ready. He told the attorneys the trial could be rescheduled for February or March. The judge plans to choose a date next week, after the attorneys have the opportunity to speak with their witnesses and decide which month would be more convenient.
Sixty potential jurors were called to the courthouse Wednesday, waiting for a jury selection that never began.
If convicted of violating Ada County’s fireworks ordinance, Kemp would face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Kemp has denied sparking the blaze. He pleaded not guilty to unlawful use of fireworks, a misdemeanor, and also maintained his innocence in multiple interviews with the Idaho Statesman.
“Yes, I was up on Table Rock that night. Yes, I made the 911 call but I had absolutely nothing to do with the start of that fire,” Kemp wrote in chat messages to a Statesman reporter in September, after he was cited.
Kemp told the Statesman he had gone up to Table Rock after dark with a friend but denied lighting any fireworks.
“I had a little box of firework poppers and were just throwing them trying to scare people,” Kemp told the Statesman in September.
He said another group of people was shooting off Roman candles and he believed one of those started the fire. He told the same story to a television station reporter the night of the fire.
Kelly told the judge on Wednesday that the witness described the person she saw light the firework as a man in his 20s, average height, with light brown or dirty blond hair and facial hair. She later told an Ada County sheriff’s deputy she recognized Kemp as the man she saw from media reports.
After Kemp was cited, the Ada County Sheriff’s Office said Kemp admitted to investigators that he was lighting Roman candles. Kemp said investigators coerced him into saying that and denied that he was using fireworks at Table Rock.
Detectives lifted fingerprints from two fireworks found at the scene. Authorities have been unable to determine whether they belong to Kemp. Since he received a citation, but was not taken into custody, deputies did not have a legal reason to take his fingerprints.
Kelly obtained a warrant that would have allowed prosecutors to take Kemp’s fingerprints. However, Price objected, saying a person could not be detained in order to obtain that kind of information in a misdemeanor case. The warrant was then withdrawn.
If Kemp is convicted, the prosecution will seek restitution for the costs of fighting the blaze. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management spent $250,000, while the Boise Fire Department spent $150,000.