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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Teens Plead Not Guilty to Starting Ranch Fire

Courts: If convicted in the 4,300-acre blaze, the Ojai Valley pair face up to four years in prison.

March 07, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Ojai Valley teenagers pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of recklessly starting a 4,300-acre brush fire while allegedly setting off illegal fireworks last December.

John Barrett and Brett Schwermer, both 18, each are charged with two felony counts in a fire that destroyed a house and burned forest land. They also are charged with one misdemeanor count of starting a fire that burned personal property.

If convicted on all counts, the teens face up to four years in state prison, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Peace said.

Barrett, a senior at Nordhoff High School, and Schwermer, who graduated from the school last year, appeared in Ventura County Superior Court on Monday for an arraignment before Judge Art Gutierrez.

Barrett and Schwermer have been the main suspects in the so-called Ranch fire since it was set Dec. 21 along Koenigstein Road in Upper Ojai.

The teens allegedly set off illegal fireworks and accidentally ignited a small blaze, authorities said. After trying to stamp the fire out, one of the boys ran to a nearby fire station for help, authorities said.

But powerful winds quickly pushed the flames westward into the hills above Ojai, destroying one home and threatening others.

Neither man spoke during the arraignment, entering pleas through their attorneys. A trial date is expected to be set at an April 3 pretrial conference.

After Monday's hearing, the prosecutor and defense attorneys declined to talk about the pending trial or whether a plea agreement may be reached.

"I am not going to comment on the facts of this case at this time," Peace said.

Lawyer Jay Johnson, who is representing Schwermer, said he could not comment, because he is still reviewing reports and transcripts in the case. Barrett's attorney, James Farley, could not be reached.

Barrett and Schwermer were indicted by the Ventura County Grand Jury on Jan. 27 and allowed to turn themselves in to police the next day. They remain free on $10,000 bail.

Barrett is the son of Ventura County Sheriff's Department Capt. James Barrett, a 27-year veteran who has served as the chief of police of Ojai for the last five years.

About 1,600 firefighters worked through Christmas to extinguish the Ranch fire at an estimated cost of $5 million. If convicted, the two could be ordered to repay that amount, in addition to serving time on the criminal charges.

Last year, the Ventura County Fire Department settled a case involving two teenagers who sparked to 400-acre brush fire between Ventura and Santa Paula in 1996.

The department sought $235,000 in recovery costs, but settled for $115,000. Authorities say the teenagers accidentally started that fire by playing with fireworks.

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