HELM HEARING DELAYED

December 04, 2002 12:00 am

By Ellen Miller

For The Observer

RIFLE, Colo. — Another delay was approved by a judge Tuesday in the prosecution of Megan Helm, the 21-year-old former La Grande woman charged with careless driving in the deaths of five fellow firefighters and injuries to five others.

Garfield County Judge Stephen Carter approved a request by both attorneys to move the hearing, which was scheduled for today, to Jan. 22.

The attorneys said they continue to await reports they are seeking under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

The reports involve the type of Ford van Helm was driving as the Grayback Forestry employees headed for duty on the Hayman Fire on Colorado's Front Range.

The van was loaded with 11 firefighters on June 21 when it overturned on Interstate 70 near Parachute, Colo.

Helm's defense will center its strategy on contentions that the vans are unsafe, noting that federal safety authorities have alerted the public to the vans' tendency to roll easily.

Helm, who is free on bond, has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of careless driving causing death or serious injury.

The charges are Class I traffic misdemeanors under Colorado law and carry a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

Prosecutors have made no indication they would seek jail time should Helm be convicted.

Meanwhile, a review of court documents this week shows that only six victim impact statements have been received by surviving victims and families of the dead. Their reactions are mixed. All the statements were filed in court July 30, and Deputy District Attorney Jeff Cheney said Tuesday no more have been received.

Calling for full prosecution of Helm were Brandon Fiala, 22, of Twin Falls, Idaho, who suffered a cracked skull, broken vertebra and broken left hip socket.

Fiala asked that Helm be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law.''

"Megan was a rough driver," Fiala wrote. "I feel Megan should face the maximum penalties for her charges.''

Earlier this week, The Associated Press in Oregon reported that Fiala amended his statement Nov. 19, saying he "cannot blame Megan when the vehicle she was driving was statistically much more likely to roll than any other vehicle.''

However, no amended statement has been received by either the district attorney's office or the court.

Dr. Michael Zigich of Twin Falls, whose son Zachary

was killed, also demanded full prosecution.

The family was devastated, he wrote, and Helm was wrong to insist on doing most of the driving because company policy required a switch in drivers every two hours.

Zigich suggested that time in jail might be necessary for Helm to "realize the tremendous devastation she has caused with her callous disregard.''

On the flip side, statements in the court filed from Linda Shirley, whose 19-year-old daughter Retha was killed, and Jerry Bailey, father of Bart, 20, who also died, and from firefighter Patrick Shorre, 25, who was injured, all asked for leniency.

"Megan has punished herself enough,'' Linda Shirley wrote. "There is nothing the court can do to bring Retha back. Megan was a friend to Retha and we wish her no harm.''

Bailey asked for compassion and also mentioned the role of "an ill-designed vehicle.''

On Jan. 22, a hearing is planned to either discuss a proposed plea agreement or to set the case for trial.

Neither attorney has given any indication that plea negotiations are in progress, and Helm's attorney, Joe Hugger of Evergreen, said in September that "the real story is the van. The federal government knew it was unsafe and it's what the Forest Service puts the firefighters in.''

Some of the families involved have retained attorneys to sue Ford for damages. An acquittal for Helm would give a big boost to their claim.

Ellen Miller is a freelance reporter based in Grand Junction, Colo.