Judge finds insufficient evidence to try accused Cedar City arsonist

Firefighters battle a blaze at a two-story home located at 1074 Mill Hollow Way, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 1, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — A man accused of aggravated arson and filing a fraudulent insurance claim will not stand trial after a judge ruled that prosecutors failed to show sufficient probable cause to support the charges.

Clare Eugene Prisbrey had been suspected by investigators of deliberately starting a fire at his Cedar City residence on Dec. 31, 2017.

Firefighters were dispatched to 1074 Mill Hollow Way shortly after 10:20 p.m. and spent the next several hours battling a blaze that severely damaged the interior of the structure. The two-story, 2,782-square-foot residence was deemed a total loss.

Prisbrey was charged with first-degree felony aggravated arson, along with filing a fraudulent insurance claim, a second-degree felony.

The first part of Prisbrey’s preliminary hearing took place last July 18, but the second portion didn’t happen until nearly 11 months later, on June 12.

File photo shows firefighters battling a blaze at a two-story home located at 1074 Mill Hollow Way, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 1, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

It was toward the end of the latter session that 5th District Judge Keith C. Barnes ruled that the prosecution had not met its burden to show sufficient probable cause to bind over Prisbrey, 53, for trial on either of the charges.

The judge noted that an investigator for Prisbrey’s insurance company had determined the fire was accidental and that the company had paid out the claim.

The case was officially closed June 17, according to court records.

Todd Hohbein, a deputy with the Utah State Fire Marshal’s office, testified during last week’s preliminary hearing that Prisbrey had made several questionable choices with regard to flammable materials in his home.

Cedar City News obtained a copy of Hohbein’s six-page report via a Government Records Access and Management Act request made to the Utah Department of Public Safety. Among the findings detailed in the report:

  • Prisbrey, who was planning to propose to his girlfriend the night of the fire, had lighted six candles in an attempt to help set the mood. The candles, which were reportedly set inside in a Christmas village with fake synthetic rolled fabric snow surrounding them, were lighted around 9:30 p.m., Prisbrey told investigators. Around 10 p.m. Prisbrey and his girlfriend left the house, with the unattended candles still burning, and drove to the grounds of the Cedar City LDS Temple (about 15 minutes away) for Prisbrey to make his proposal there instead. Firefighters were dispatched to Prisbrey’s burning home at 10:22 p.m.
  • Prisbrey’s dog had reportedly gotten into a tray of paint and tracked it throughout the house on Dec. 19, 2017, leading to extensive cleanup efforts using paint thinner, Prisbrey told investigators. The dog was not home at the time of the fire either, having reportedly gone with the couple to the temple grounds.
  • Three plastic containers, each with at least one gallon of gasoline, were found in the garage next to a water heater, the report said. Two of the containers had the caps removed from their pour spouts, and one was completely open with no pour spout at all.
  • An “overly dry” Christmas tree was found in the home’s front entryway, near a staircase.
  • Two unexplained holes were found cut or punched in the wall between the living room and the garage, with the holes lining up with where the gasoline containers were stored and the location where the candlelit Christmas display was set up in the living room.
  • A storage tub filled with flammable liquids and sprays was also found next to the water heater. Additionally, a pressurized air tank was found in the backseat of an SUV parked in the garage, the report added.

Hohbein wrote in his report that he believed Prisbrey’s actions were deliberate, going beyond unwise or unthinking decisions with regard to the storage of accelerants and flammable materials inside the home.

“It is my contention that Prisbrey did not have poor judgment, but intentionally set these situations up, hoping the candles and water heater would start a fire that would destroy the home he was financially upside down in and could not sell,” Hohbein wrote.

To see a copy of the full report from the Utah State Fire Marshal’s Office, click here.

Gary Pendleton, Prisbrey’s lawyer, did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

Iron County Attorney Chad Dotson told Cedar City News Thursday that his office has not decided whether to appeal the judge’s ruling and try to have the case reinstated.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.


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