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Drug Program Ordered for Chief's Son Accused of Arson

September 22, 1987|JANE APPLEGATE | Times Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES — A 19-year-old Cypress man, charged Monday with setting the Silverado Canyon fires, was ordered to enter a drug and alcohol treatment program and also told not to contact his best friend, who informed on him.

Robert Edward Lowenberg, son of Cypress Police Chief Ronald E. Lowenberg, was formally charged with arson in the setting of two fires on Sept. 9 in Cleveland National Forest that blackened 5,000 acres and took 1,100 firefighters a week to control.

U.S. Forest Service officials said that Robert Lowenberg and his friend were the first to call to report the fires. And they said it was Lowenberg's friend, who has not been charged in the fires, who led police to Lowenberg.

At Monday's bail hearing, a federal prosecutor asked that Lowenberg be ordered not to contact his friend, Richard Anthony Tafoya 18, who also lives in Orange County.

"Tafoya is a witness and an informant who may have been subjected to a death threat by a member of the defendant's family," Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen Wolfe said. He declined to be more specific.

After the hearing, Lowenberg's father said the allegation of a death threat against Tafoya is "ridiculous."

And E. Thomas Barham Jr., Robert Lowenberg's attorney, said: "Mr. Tafoya's life was obliquely threatened--it was not a direct threat." He refused to elaborate.

U.S. Magistrate Volney V. Brown Jr. approved the request, and Barham assured him that no one from the family would contact Tafoya.

Tall, blond, slender and sporting a crew cut, Lowenberg appeared before Brown wearing a white T-shirt advertising a paint store and blue Bermuda shorts.

Brown set bail at $25,000 and suggested that the Lowenberg family use the equity in their home to secure the bond. Barham said the Lowenberg family had not yet made a decision on the bail.

Until he can be interviewed by a counselor for possible placement in a residential drug and alcohol treatment program while his case proceeds, Barham said Lowenberg will remain in federal prison at Terminal Island. Barham declined to provide details about Lowenberg's drug and alcohol problems.

At an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps, Lowenberg's father thanked all the friends and relatives who have offered the family support since his son's arrest.

"Certainly, we love our son, and we'll certainly give him whatever support he needs," he said. "He'll have to reconcile (this) with himself and God."

Forest Service investigators arrested Robert Lowenberg Friday outside the Garden Grove electronics store where he had been working for about six months.

According to an affidavit filed in federal court by Forest Service investigator Nancy R. Ehmann, Lowenberg and Tafoya were in the national forest on Sept. 9 to "relax and shoot Lowenberg's BB gun."

That afternoon, when Ehmann arrived at the Silverado Canyon fire, she was told that the fire was first reported around 2 p.m. by Tafoya and Lowenberg.

She later visited a second fire, started near Maple Springs, about half a mile south of the first fire.

There, Ehmann met Orange County Fire Investigator John McMasters as he was interviewing Lowenberg and Tafoya. The two young men tried to pin the blame on two other men who were driving a truck similar to theirs, "a purplish-blue Toyota pickup."

According to the affidavit, Ehmann later found two men in a truck that matched the description given by Lowenberg and Tafoya. Those men, however, told her they saw two young men in a blue Toyota truck with a "rifle sticking out the passenger window" near the Maple Springs fire. Lowenberg and Tafoya had been in such a truck.

She and agent Lanier later determined that both fires were caused by arson.

On Sept. 18, after telling him his constitutional rights, Ehmann took a statement from Tafoya.

"Mr. Tafoya told me that Robert Edward Lowenberg had started both the Silverado and Maple fires on Sept. 9, 1987, in Mr. Tafoya's presence."

That same day, after informing Lowenberg of his constitutional rights, Lowenberg "told me that he had started both fires in the presence of Mr. Tafoya, starting the Silverado fire at the side of the road as he and Mr. Tafoya drove away from the place where Mr. Lowenberg had earlier started the Maple fire," Ehmann said in her affidavit.

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