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Gazette Premium Content Woman arrested in front of burned home trying to piece life back together

By Jesse Paul jesse.paul@gazette.com - Updated: June 28, 2013 at 9:47 am

BLACK FOREST - It is all just too much for Marsha McCormack.

Because of the Black Forest fire, the 59-year-old lost the home she shared with her son, her health, and, for nine hours last week, her freedom.

McCormack is picking up the pieces, refusing to look forward because the stress of pressing on might just be too much for her now frail heart. Spending a long day in the custody of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office didn't help.

On June 21, as she sifted through the charred wreckage of her uninsured trailer home on land that she rented, the golden-haired woman was handcuffed and arrested by three deputies. A license plate reader had tipped authorities that she was wanted on a bench warrant for failing to appear in court on a traffic-related charge.

A deputy told McCormack that the process would last roughly 20 minutes, she said this week. Hours after being placed in the back of a squad car, she arrived at the county jail only to be taken to a hospital a short while later because of severe chest pains. She was then returned to the jail for processing and finally released to her neighbors who posted a $446 bail and court fee.

"I didn't think I could do it," McCormack said of surviving the ordeal.

As she sat Wednesday on the bed of her tan, late model Toyota pickup truck, the one which caused her so much trouble last week, McCormack kept a hand on her chest and took deep, labored breaths to cope with the pain under her ribs.

When she pulled the vehicle into the scorched driveway, she had to move a makeshift roadblock of sticks and rocks next to a spray-painted "KEEP OUT" warning scrawled on the black ground.

Three years ago, McCormack moved to Black Forest from Los Angeles, Calif., to be near two of her five sons. In a modest trailer in the woods, she learned to love her new community.

She didn't think there was any way a fire that started near Shoup Road and Peregrine Way on June 11 could make it the miles to Vessey Circle where she was biding her time at home. But before she knew it, the wildfire was in her front yard and there was no time left.

"They literally came through here three times and told me, 'You've got to go,'" she said.

She grabbed her two dogs, two boxes of pictures and a folder of birth certificates and hit the road. Now, she's staying in a borrowed motor home outside the house of a fellow member of the Black Forest Chapel.

"It's a temporary place," McCormack said. "After that, I don't know. I'm not trying to think that far ahead because that is just too much stress."

The day before she was arrested, McCormack was hospitalized because of severe chest pain after becoming overwhelmed with the burden of her lost home. Before that, she said, she never had a health problem. A passerby who noticed her holding her chest insisted that she call for help, and before McCormack knew it, an ambulance showed up. Without health insurance and unable to pay the ambulance fee, she was forced to place a frantic call to a friend who drove her to the emergency room.

McCormack returned home the next day to wade through the remains, and about 4:30 p.m. on June 21, deputies located her.

"She was crying, she was freaking out," said neighbor Steve Earls, who rushed to help her after receiving a frantic phone call. "She was like, 'Why now?'"

McCormack handed some of her only possessions, a now-broken cell phone and her purse, to Earls and was escorted away in tears.

"I thought I had paid it," McCormack said on Wednesday. "I thought it was taken care of. I guess not."

The ticket stemmed from a traffic in stop in California many years ago where police found she lacked insurance and suspended her license, McCormack said. Sometime within the last year, she was stopped in Colorado for running a stop sign and issued a summons for lacking a driver's license.

She was given a December court date, but because she had scheduled a trip to California to deal with a family emergency, she couldn't make it. McCormack said that after requesting and being denied a new court date, the time came and passed unnoticed until last week.

When The Gazette first told McCormack's story on Saturday, many readers commented online that they were "shocked," "disgusted" and "ashamed" by the arrest. Others thought she had used "poor judgement" in not taking care of the traffic charge. One man, a lawyer, said he "would represent her pro-bono."

"It was a misdemeanor warrant," sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jeff Kramer said in an email. "She was handcuffed because she was arrested and being transported to jail in a police car. Standard procedure on any arrest." After waiting hours outside the El Paso County jail for their neighbor, Earls and his wife Connie paid for McCormack's release around 2:45 a.m. and drove her back to her temporary home.

"It was an honest mistake," McCormack said. "I had no idea they would do this. That's all I needed."

At a follow-up doctor's appointment on Tuesday, employees there paid for her visit. Paired with the generosity of her neighbors, McCormack doesn't know how to thank those who have helped her, marking an odd juxtaposition against the frustration she feels towards the sheriff's office.

"There's nothing I can do about this stuff but focus on positive things," she said. "It's off my shoulders now. It's taken care of. I don't want to tell my story again. It's painful. It's extremely painful. It's like mourning - it takes time."

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Contact Jesse Paul at 636-0253. Twitter: @JesseAPaul

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