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Anger, Relief for Victims of Laguna Blaze

October 01, 1994|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many Laguna Beach residents who lost their homes in last year's devastating wildfire, it appeared to matter little Friday that a homeless man had only been charged, not convicted, of starting the blaze.

"They ought to hang the bastard," said Joyce Wippler, whose parents Bertha Wippler, now 93, and Hans, 92, lost their Mystic Hills home.

Other fire victims suggested more innovative punishments for Jose Soto Martinez, the 26-year-old transient who has told investigators he purposely sparked the October firestorm.

"They ought to throw him in a tank of piranhas," offered former Temple Hills resident Thomas Homan, quickly adding that he was joking, in part. But several others, without humor, said that if Martinez is found guilty, he should be burned at the stake.

For many whose homes and belongings were destroyed in the fire, the news of the confession brought a long-simmering sense of outrage and anger boiling back to the surface. But others expressed relief, saying that if Martinez is telling the truth, his arrest and imprisonment at least will ensure that he is not free this fire season to set another blaze.

"I'm just so glad that he's not on the street, available to do it all again," said Jason Bevacqua, 23, whose home in the El Moro Trailer Park was lost to the flames. Bevacqua, a salesman, said he had moved back to the trailer park only last week.

Laguna Beach City Councilman Robert F. Gentry, who lost his own Mystic Hills home in the fire, said it was not until he heard the news of the arrest that he realized how uneasy he had been, conscious in the back of his mind that the person who started the fire could do it again.

"I think it was really eating at all of us that this could occur again," Gentry said. "No one had been arrested, and now it's the season again for Santa Ana wind conditions," like those that whipped last year's flames into a blaze that destroyed or damaged nearly 400 homes in the Laguna area.

Gentry said Martinez's arrest also may help many fire victims find an element of emotional closure, particularly so close to the one-year anniversary of the event.

"I don't see how it can do anything but help the healing process," he said. "And it brings closure. Maybe it will now be over."

There were others, though, who said they doubted, or at least wondered, whether Martinez was responsible. Many said it seemed likely that a man who claimed he set fires in the hope of calling forth a demon might delude himself into thinking he had started one of the most destructive blazes in California history.

"The whole thing sounds very tenuous to me at this point," said Polly Sloan. "I'm kind of reserving judgment." Sloan also said she found it difficult to understand or come to terms with the idea that anyone had deliberately started a fire that caused such suffering.

"What kind of a person would set these fires and cause hundreds of families to be set back years emotionally, not even knowing where they were going to be living?" Sloan asked. "It's still hard to believe anyone could do that."

But she and others said they found a measure of comfort in the idea that the man claiming responsibility appeared to be mentally ill, and thus not completely aware of the likely consequences of his action.

"I still don't really feel anger toward him," said Bobbie Chalmers, a writer who said she had hoped that the fire's origins were natural, sparked by lightning perhaps. "I still don't like knowing there's an actual person who did this, but I'm glad it wasn't malicious. I'm glad in a way that maybe it's a sick person and not an evil person."

And a few said they felt almost detached from the news, unable to feel much happiness that an arrest had been made at long last.

"It helps to give closure, I guess, but you know what? It doesn't change a thing," Sloan said. "The houses are still gone, there's still the emotional loss, and people are still waiting for their permits to rebuild. It doesn't really change anything."

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