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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Transcripts Link Blaze to Fireworks

Grand jury: Two 18-year-old men, indicted after the 4,300-acre Ojai Valley fire, were allegedly attempting to get revenge on a neighbor who borrowed a CD.

March 10, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ojai Valley residents Brett Schwermer and Jonathan Barrett were apparently trying to get back at a teenage neighbor who had borrowed a CD and failed to return it.

So they placed a collection of bottle rockets and other illegal fireworks inside the neighbor's mailbox, still stained from when someone had months earlier set off firecracker-stuffed tomatoes, lit the fuse and watched it blow.

Within minutes, according to grand jury transcripts, brush burst into flames and a wind-swept fire soon blazed out of control.

That was the evidence presented during two days of testimony before the Ventura County Grand Jury, which in late January indicted Schwermer and Barrett, both 18, on charges of recklessly starting the 4,300-acre Ranch fire.

The Dec. 21 blaze broke out after 8 p.m. near a row of mailboxes along Koenigstein Road. It destroyed one home, burned acres of forest land and forced the evacuation of many Ojai Valley residents.

Schwermer and Barrett face up to four years in state prison if convicted on felony and misdemeanor charges of recklessly causing a fire that burned an inhabited structure, forest land and other property.

Last week, they both pleaded not guilty.

Transcripts of the grand jury proceedings that led to their indictments were released this week.

Neighbor Harriette Jump told the grand jury that she spotted the fire about 8:30 p.m. and drove down a road where she met neighbors, including Schwermer's father.

As they watched the fire's red glow, Brett Schwermer drove up and told them that he had reported the blaze to a nearby county fire station but did not say how the blaze had started, Jump testified. "He was extremely excited, and he said that he was there and saw the fire start," Jump said. "Brett said he tried to stomp the fire out. That didn't work, so he turned to go back to the pickup and get the fire extinguisher, and by the time he came back, the fire was too big."

According to arson investigator Scott Hall, Schwermer's lighter and about 30 pieces of burned fireworks were found the next morning around the mailboxes.

It was suggested by some grand jury witnesses that Schwermer had blown up tomatoes in his backyard and had targeted a neighbor's mailbox once before.

Neighbor Eric Jump, 18, testified that he and Schwermer used to be friends. Jump said he had borrowed a Korn CD from Schwermer, who had repeatedly asked for it back. Jump told the grand jury that he mistakenly thought that he had returned it.

It was the Jump family mailbox that Hall identified as being burned.

According to the transcripts, Schwermer purchased out-of-state fireworks, which are illegal in California, during a cross-country road trip with his 18-year-old friend, Tyler Hale, last summer.

Schwermer and Hale were ticketed in Santa Barbara County weeks later for possession of illegal fireworks. A Santa Barbara County deputy testified that he caught the two shooting off fireworks at a Carpinteria beach and confiscated the explosives.

Hale told the grand jury that he gave fireworks from the trip to his friend Barrett in early December because he didn't want to risk receiving another ticket.

Schwermer appeared before the grand jury but invoked his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Barrett was not called as a witness.

But the grand jury transcripts show that both men previously talked to investigators about the fire and offered conflicting accounts of what happened.

Schwermer told authorities that Barrett, son of the sheriff's captain who serves as Ojai's police chief, set off the fireworks without Schwermer's knowledge or participation. He said he had been off-roading with Barrett that night, stalled and, as he was working under his truck, Barrett set off fireworks.

Barrett, however, told his father--Capt. James Barrett--that Schwermer set off the fireworks.

The younger Barrett repeated the same story to detectives the morning of Dec. 22 during an interview at the Ventura law offices of James Farley. Barrett hired the defense attorney on the advice of his parents, and Farley called deputies in Ventura to inform them that his client had information about the fire.

While admitting that the fireworks were his, Jonathan Barrett told detectives that it was Schwermer's idea to blow up the mailbox.

"Brett told Jonathan that one of the mailboxes belonged to another juvenile that he had been having problems with, so he wanted to stop and light some of the firecrackers and fireworks in that mailbox," Ventura County Sheriff's Det. William Hammer testified.

"They parked the truck a short distance from the row of mailboxes on a little dirt patch," said Hammer, testifying that Barrett told him that they ignited bottle rockets and a Roman candle. "Brett placed the Roman candle in the box, lit it; the fuse went out so he lit it a second time."

At one point in the proceedings, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Peace asked James Barrett about the conversation he had with his son the night the fire broke out.

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