Two Sets of Malibu Wildfire Suspects Proceed to Next Court Dates
• Five Men Charged with Starting or Causing Conditions that Led to Devastating Corral Canyon Blaze •
BY HANS LAETZ
BY HANS LAETZ
Last week’s bail hearing for three Los Angeles men provided the first details about what arson detectives say happened at the now notorious cave at the end of Corral Canyon Road the night that Malibu’s worst brushfire in 12 years was ignited.
In remarks from the bench, Judge Michael Kellogg went beyond what is usually discussed at routine bail hearings by reciting the alleged events of that night in great detail, and offered conclusions as to the chain of events and the suspects’ likely guilt.
“Careless” and “callous” were the terms that the judge— himself affected by recent Malibu brushfires—used to describe the acts by the three Los Angeles men who went before him last Friday seeking reduced bail.
Attorneys for the men argued that they are being made scapegoats by a community hungry for retribution.
At issue last week was a request by William Thomas Coppock, 23, and Brian David Franks, 27, that the two men be released on their own recognizance pending their trial.
Coppock’s bail was reduced from $230,000 to $100,000, but his public defender said Coppock is broke and would spend Christmas in jail.
The judge denied a request to release Coppock to the custody of a Los Angeles woman who said she had raised him after his mother was murdered when he was a child, and attested that “he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
Coppock’s lawyer said the defendant, an employee at a Starbuck’s, had a criminal record consisting only of a seat belt violation fine that had been paid.
Codefendant Franks won a $10,000 reduction in his bail, to $230,000, based on a recalculation of state bail guidelines. He was released shortly after Friday’s hearing in Van Nuys.
Judge Kellogg noted that, although the defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty at a trial, all unproven charges must be considered to be true when a judge sets bail.
“There is nothing to show me that there wasn’t this callousness,” Kellogg said, “and a high level of carelessness. And all the sorries in the world don’t change that.”
Already free on bail is Brian Alan Anderson, 23, who was painted by prosecution documents as the ringleader of the trio of men who went to the mountaintop cave overlooking Malibu and the San Fernando Valley to drink beer and other alcohol the Friday night after Thanksgiving, as Santa Ana winds howled through the hills.
As pieced together from details revealed in court by attorneys and the judge on Friday, Anderson, Coppock and Franks went to the cave after allegedly stealing between three to four packages of precut firewood from the Ralph’s Market at Malibu Colony Plaza. Coppock also allegedly purchased lighter fluid, and someone bought a case of either 18 or 30 cans of beer, and hard liquor.
It was cash register receipts from those purchases that allowed sheriff’s arson investigators to subpoena bank records and find the three alleged arsonists, who stand charged with recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, recklessly causing fire to an inhabited structure, and arson during a state of emergency.
All three of these crimes are felonies, and each carries a sentence of between 2-4 years.
Prosecution reports revealed last Friday allege that the three men apparently drove to the cave and encountered two teenagers from Culver City: Dean Allan Lavorante, 19, and Eric Matthew Ullman, 18, and their girlfriends. Those men had a small bonfire going inside the cave, but left shortly after the other men arrived and started partying heavily.
Lavorante and Ullman are also charged with the same crimes, but are being tried separately because the evidence against them is different than that targeting the three L.A. defendants. The Culver City men are free on bail and will face preliminary hearings on Feb. 14.
According to a sheriff’s report read by one of the attorneys in court last week, Anderson reportedly kicked burning logs out of the cave and into the surrounding brush. A drunken Anderson allegedly ordered Coppock out of the cave to put it out.
“Anderson kicked a burning log out of the cave and said, ‘Here, put this out,’” Franks’ public defender, Douglas Jay Goldstein, said. A pillow of some sort was then lit on fire, and thrown toward Coppock, who tried to stomp out the burning logs, pillow and embers in the volatile brush and whipping winds.
“Guys were laughing,” Goldstein maintained, adding that his client not only did not start the fire, “but [he] seemed to be a good Samaritan.”
The defense attorneys maintain that the three L.A. men did not start the fire, and left the cave thinking that the fire had been put out. But Judge Kellogg, during an unusual spoken review of the state’s evidence, scoffed at that.
Kellogg said he had carefully reviewed arson investigators reports, and looked at what each man had been seen doing that hot and windy night.
The judge noted that the fire injured firefighters, one of them with second-degree burns, and one with a broken ankle.
The judge added that the arson crimes do not charge that the men actually started the fire, but that their actions caused it to spread.
Before the bail hearing began, Kellogg made it clear to attorneys that he was personally affected by the Malibu Canyon fire that took place a month earlier, when he had to rescue a friend’s horses as a firestorm approached.
He emphasized there was no local pressure in the case. “No one from Malibu is knocking on my door, saying we have to convict these men,” the judge said.
All three attorneys said they knew and trusted the judge and did not take him up on his offer to hand the case to another judge for the bail hearing. However, another judge will handle the preliminary hearing.
Because Coppock is in jail, his attorney would not allow a waiver of the laws that requires a preliminary hearing within 10 court days. That means the other two defendants must rush through hundred of pages of sheriff’s and fire department reports as they prepare for the Jan. 7 preliminary hearing date.
At that session, the state must produce witnesses and evidence showing the likelihood that a crime was committed by the defendants. The defenders will be able to cross-examine witnesses and try to knock out the charges.
Expected to testify is one woman who was at the party and gave sheriff’s deputies a lengthy description of the night’s events, which culminated in a fast-moving blaze that destroyed 53 houses between 2:30 and 7:30 a.m.
No official damages tally has yet been released, but the figure of above $100 million has been estimated by the Malibu Surfside News and was quoted as accurate by Sheriff Lee Baca.
No one was killed, but one firefighter from the Sacramento area suffered second-degree burns to his face when a burning garbage can exploded molten plastic as a stream of water hit it.