The trail grew cold for detectives investigating last summer’s devastating fire at Table Rock — which destroyed a home, threatened dozens more and burned 2,500 acres — until an anonymous tip led them to the man who first reported the flames.
The Aug. 8 tip submitted to Crime Stoppers named Taylor Kemp as the person responsible for the June 29 fire, Detective Justin Elliott with the Ada County Sheriff’s Office testified Monday during a hearing in Ada County Magistrate Court.
The three-day hearing, which will continue Tuesday and then conclude Friday, will determine whether Kemp’s lighting of a Roman candle caused the fire. That will resolve if he is responsible for $341,000 in fire-suppression costs and $200,000 in damages to the home that burned, along with family possessions.
In February, Kemp, 19, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of Ada County’s fireworks ordinance. He faces up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
In multiple interviews with the Idaho Statesman last year, Kemp denied lighting any fireworks near Table Rock. He said he and a friend had only a box of firework poppers that they threw to scare people.
He called 911 to report the fire, initially telling detectives he saw a group of people shooting off Roman candles and believed one of them started the fire. He told the same story to a television station reporter who interviewed him the night of the fire.
After he admitted to lighting off a Roman candle and was cited, Kemp told the Statesman that detectives coerced him into confessing. He said he became so distraught that he curled up into a fetal position on the ground while talking to the detectives.
In his testimony Monday, Elliott said Kemp sat on the grass outside his apartment during a portion of their conversation but never crawled into a fetal position. Audio of the interview was played in court; Elliott remained calm as he asked Kemp questions about what happened that night.
Kemp became emotional and at one point sounded like he might break down as he continued to deny any involvement in the fire.
“I didn’t shoot any,” he said loudly in the recording.
Elliott pressed him, saying he didn’t believe the fire was set intentionally. He said he wasn’t going to take Kemp to jail, but said he needed to hear the truth.
Kemp told the Statesman in September that the detectives threatened to take him to jail unless he wrote a letter of regret. That was not heard in the recording played in court.
Finally, in the recording, Kemp said he had purchased $200 worth of fireworks and admitted shooting off the Roman candle. Elliott said Kemp nodded when asked whether his firework was the one that started the fire.
Defense attorney Reedy Smith pressed Elliott on whether he chased down leads that someone else could have been responsible for the fire. The detective said up to 50 people were at Table Rock at the time the fire began about 11:30 p.m.
Elliott said he spoke to several other potential suspects, but was not able to prove they had been at Table Rock that night. And a fire investigator testified that fireworks being lit off at a nearby subdivision were too far away to have caused the fire, which started near the gate downhill from the Table Rock cross.
An 18-year-old woman testified she and a friend were driving down the graveled portion of the road, down from the gate leading to Table Rock, when she saw a firework on the ground tip toward the brush and set it on fire. She said she became scared as the fire quickly got larger.
“It was like when you put gas on a fire,” she said.
The woman pointed to Kemp and said he was the man she saw lighting the firework. She said she recognized him after seeing a taped KTVB-TV interview with Kemp the day after the fire.
The fire became a rallying point for a short-lived push to remove a loophole in state code: Idahoans can buy illegal fireworks in this state as long as they sign a waiver promising not to set them off here. Fire chiefs, including Boise’s Dennis Doan, argued for changing that law. But the House State Affairs Committee in February rejected the measure, in part because it did not restrict sales on tribal reservations.