‘Great Detective Work’ Credited in Identifying Suspects in Corral Fire
• Five Men Charged with Three Felony Counts Face Double-Digit Prison Terms If Convicted
BY HANS LAETZ
BY HANS LAETZ
The rumors sweeping Malibu were exactly correct: it was cash register data from purchases made at Ralph’s Supermarket in Malibu that led sheriff’s investigators to two teenagers from Culver City and three men from Los Angeles who allegedly let a moonlight beer bust bonfire get out of control in the backcountry of Malibu Creek State Park.
The fire in the predawn hours of Nov. 24 raged out of control, destroying $100 million worth of Malibu real estate. Relatives and lawyers to some of the defendants said the young men were being made scapegoats for a fire that was out when they left the party at the end of Corral Canyon Road.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced last week that the five men have each been charged with three felony counts, and could face from six to 12 years imprisonment.
Key evidence will be the partly burned firewood and snacks found at the party site on state parks land—party goods that had been purchased earlier in the evening at the Malibu market.
Baca confirmed reports first printed last week in the Malibu Surfside News that the snacks and firewood had been purchased with plastic money, and that sheriff’s arson squad investigators were able to link specific items found at a campfire at the mountaintop caves with specific purchases using grocery store register tapes.
A search warrant allowed the investigators to link the purchases by credit or debit card to a specific account holder, Baca said.
“Sheriff’s arson investigators issued a press statement asking for public support in solving the crime: a citizen did respond and offered valuable assistance,” the sheriff said. A young woman who was a member of one group of partiers gave key information about the men who were in another group, the sheriff said.
“She was a member of one group, the first group of kids witnessed the second group come up and start the fire,” Baca told the News. “She is a witness, not a suspect.”
Baca said investigators went as far as Shasta County near the Oregon border to interview witnesses and suspects. “We know for a fact that items they purchased at the store were left in the debris.”
The suspects include Los Angeles residents Brian Alan Anderson, 22, William Thomas Coppock, 23, and Brian David Franks, 27. The three did not post the $240,000 to $270,000 bail and remain in custody. They are scheduled for an arraignment and bail review hearing on Friday, Dec. 21, in Van Nuys Superior Court.
Two Culver City men, Eric Matthew Ullman, 18, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 19, are also charged. They surrendered to the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station Friday, posted bail of $240,000 each and were released the same day. Their arraignment hearing was first slated for this Monday, then was continued without explanation to Feb. 14.
Arson Detective Irma Gonzales, indicated that the men were not part of a gang. “They were up there that night, consuming alcoholic beverages and hanging out,” she said.
“This wasn’t an oops,” said District Attorney Steve Cooley. “These charges reflect criminal recklessness that resulted in six injuries and the destruction of 55 homes and other structures.
“The law is clear. You cannot go into a high fire danger area and for whatever reason build a fire. It is not only a recipe for disaster, it is a criminal act,” he said in a press release issued last week. Although the DA said 55 homes were destroyed, the fire department counted 53 gutted and 33 structures seriously damaged.
The district attorney’s office won its requests that all five men post a bond of about a quarter million dollars each. They are charged with recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure, and arson during an emergency.
All three of those crimes are felonies and each carries a sentence of between 2-4 years.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky credited arson investigators with “great detective work, great investigative work.”
“It is reckless, on top of the illegality, to set a fire anywhere in the mountains when there is a Santa Ana wind condition, as there was that night,” he said.
The filing of charges came 19 days after the fire swept down Corral, Latigo and Escondido canyons, destroying 53 houses and damaging nearly as many. The Los Angeles County Fire Department has yet to announce a total damages estimate, but the $100 million figure has been speculated.
The five men could be civilly liable for damages, but their assets and ability to repay are dwarfed by the damage done, observers said. There was no answer at the apparent homes of the two Culver City teens last Thursday night, and a woman who answered the door at one of the teen’s residences on Monday said she would prefer not to speak to a reporter.
Ullman and Lavorante are members of families that have lived in Culver City for generations, and both of the men graduated from Culver City High School in 2006.
In other Corral Fire news, the state fire agency released a tentative report on the injuries incurred by Sacramento-area firefighter Scott Herzog during the early hours of the fire, when he suffered second-degree burns to his face.
A preliminary Cal Fire report said Herzog’s engine was protecting a house at 26160 Fairside Road when a large plastic garbage bin across the street caught fire.
“The firefighter was approximately 3-4 feet from the burning trash can with flames less then a foot tall,” the report said, when the firefighter“sprayed water directly at the base of the flames.
“When the water hit the burning plastic, a spray of molten plastic and flames enveloped the firefighter,” the report said. Nearby paramedics treated him immediately.