Arraignment of Two Men Who Originally Started Corral Cave Fire Continued
• Pair May Seek Separate Trial from Trio Who Allegedly Caused Fire to Spiral Out of Control
BY HANS LAETZ
BY HANS LAETZ
The two Culver City men charged with starting the November fire that claimed 53 Malibu houses made a brief court appearance last Thursday, and their attorneys eagerly sought out reporters afterward to explain the pair’s contention that the fire was “a terrible accident.”
Eric Matthew Ullman and Dean Allen Lavorante appeared before Judge Michael Kellogg—coincidentally, a Malibu resident—in the Van Nuys courthouse to enter pleas and be arraigned on three felony arson counts each.
Ullman, 18, and Lavorante, 19, are two of the five men accused of instigating the fire on Nov. 24, a Friday night when hellacious Santa Ana winds were sweeping through a cave at the top of Corral Canyon Road, a party spot frequently the scene of illegal fires and underage drinking.
Ullman’s attorney, Mark Werksman, said outside the courtroom that “my client is a good man, a decent man, who meant no harm that night. These are good boys, from intact, loving families, they are going to schools, and they are not rogues.”
Lavorante and Ullman appeared in suits, with their parents, and all looking grim. They heard their arraignment and plea-entering will be delayed until April 2 at the request of both prosecutors and the defense attorneys.
All five defendants in the case are charged with recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure, and arson during a declared emergency. All three crimes are felonies. Each carries a sentence of between two-four years in state prison.
Neither attorney would allow their clients to speak. But Werksman said he agreed with the rough description of the night’s events made by Judge Kellogg several weeks ago, at a hearing for the other three men charged in the fire: Los Angeles residents Brian Allen Anderson, 22, William Thomas Coppock, 23, and Brian David Franks, 27.
At that hearing, Judge Kellogg said the state’s version of the fire’s origin was that the two Culver City teens and two female companions had started a small fire inside a hole-in-the-rock window cave that overlooks the lights of the San Fernando Valley. According to the investigation summarized by Judge Kellogg last month, the foursome’s small party in the cave was interrupted when the three L.A. men arrived, took over the scene, and chased off Lavorante and Ullman.
Some time after those two men had driven away, and after a large amount of alcohol had been consumed, the Los Angeles trio stoked the fire with several bundles of wood stolen from the Ralph’s Market in Malibu, and then kicked burning logs into the brush below.
Intent to actually cause a brushfire, however, is not necessary for convictions on the arson charges brought against the five defendants, the judge has said in past court appearances. The arson laws being used against the men only require a finding by the jury of a negligent act of causing a fire that spreads.
At the previous hearing, Kellogg said red flag alerts had been broadcast for days before the fire broke out, and the near-hurricane-force winds buffeting the Santa Monica Mountains that night made it obvious that a bonfire could have terrible consequences. The judge, who had helped friends move horses during a local fire two months earlier, also noted that large signs prohibiting fire were posted down the road from the caves.
Again at last week’s hearing, Judge Kellogg told the attorneys he understood why the case against Lavorante and Ullman is different from the case against the three other men. “There are two separate factual scenarios, I understand that very well,” the judge said.
Kellogg took the unusual step for a bail judge last month of researching all of the arson and sheriff’s deputies investigations, and summarizing them out loud in court. Kellogg said at the time he did that to make sure he understood exactly what the worst-case scenario of what happened at the cave was, before allowing the men out on bail.
Although all five could be tried together, the attorneys said it was likely that the recent Culver City High School graduates would seek a separate trial from the Los Angeles trio.
“For [our clients], at the very worst, this was an act of incaution that had horrible consequences, that everyone regrets,” said Ben Pesta II, who represents Lavorante.
The Nov. 24 fire swept down Corral, Latigo and Escondido canyons in the predawn hours of a hot and gale-force windy night just after Thanksgiving. Prosecutors are saying that 55 homes were destroyed, although the Los Angeles County Fire Department states that it counted 53 burned-out houses. No official damages total has been released, but the $100 million figure has been speculated by officials.