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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

2 Ojai Teens Plead Guilty to Charges in 4,300-Acre Fire

Court: The 18-year-olds face up to a year in County Jail. The December forest blaze destroyed one home.

May 25, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping for leniency, two Ojai teenagers pleaded guilty Wednesday to setting off illegal fireworks that sparked a devastating December brush fire that destroyed one home and burned 4,300 acres of forest east of the city.

Brett Schwermer and Jonathan Barrett, both 18, withdrew their earlier pleas of not guilty during separate hearings in Ventura County Superior Court.

Schwermer stood before Judge Steven Hintz during a morning hearing and pleaded guilty to one felony count of recklessly starting a fire that burned a house and one misdemeanor count of burning personal property, a mailbox.

Barrett, the son of Ojai's police chief, appeared before Judge Ken Riley later in the day and pleaded guilty to the same charges. Prosecutors plan to dismiss a felony count of recklessly burning forest land when the teens are sentenced by Hintz on June 29.

Although the felony charge they still face carries a possible four-year prison sentence, prosecutors have agreed not to push for prison time. Schwermer and Barrett will instead face up to a year in County Jail.

But defense lawyers want their clients to avoid any jail time. They plan to ask Hintz to place the teens on probation and order them to perform community service.

"Obviously it's our hope that we can convince the judge that everyone would be better off, including these two boys, to not have them go to jail," said attorney Jay Johnson, who represents Schwermer.

Johnson said an appropriate punishment would be to order the teens to clear brush, replant trees or help rebuild the Sisar Road home destroyed in the Dec. 21 fire.

"They could cut fire breaks, they could work at the Fire Department doing grunt work," Johnson said. "I'd say anything the people of Ojai want them to do."

Attorney James Farley, who represents Barrett, said he has already talked to homeowner Tom Forgea about having his client help rebuild the house. Farley said Forgea, a retired probation officer, was open to the idea.

Tom and Gloria Forgea lost everything in the fire--the house they lived in for 25 years, a coin collection and other personal property. The couple escaped with only the clothes on their backs and their pets.

"A lot of damage was done," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Peace, adding she was glad the teens accepted responsibility for the fire.

As for the defense proposal, Peace said, "I need to see exactly what is proposed. I think it is something we may consider, but we need to see the specifics of it first."

The so-called Ranch fire started off Koenigstein Road in Upper Ojai about 8:30 p.m on Dec. 21 and quickly moved northwest toward Ojai, forcing evacuations and threatening the campuses of the Thacher School and Ojai Valley School.

Authorities say the fire started when the defendants exploded illegal fireworks, including bottle rockets and a Roman candle, in a neighbor's mailbox. According to grand jury transcripts, Schwermer may have been trying to get back at a teenage neighbor who had borrowed a Korn CD and had never returned it.

About 1,600 firefighters worked through Christmas to extinguish the blaze at an estimated cost of nearly $5 million.

Whether Barrett and Schwermer are ordered to repay those firefighting costs remains uncertain.

Peace said Wednesday she was uncertain whether the costs would be included in a restitution amount to be determined by the Probation Department or handled separately in a civil lawsuit.

Peace, however, said she expects the teens to be ordered to pay restitution to victims of the fire, including the Forgeas and ranchers who lost avocado groves.

Under terms of the plea agreement, both can be required to pay for "all properties damaged as a result of the fire."

Peace said she was uncertain of the dollar amount, but said, "I'm sure it's very significant."

Johnson said the bill could easily reach into the millions of dollars. Unless his client "hits the lottery," he said, there is no way he will be able to pay such a fine.

Schwermer graduated from Nordhoff High School last year, and has been working at his father's construction company after losing a job because of publicity surrounding the case, Johnson said.

He said his client pleaded guilty Wednesday because he "was not interested in prolonging this" and feels remorseful.

"He's devastated--it's devastated the entire family," Johnson said. As for fireworks, the lawyer added, "I don't think he'll ever put one of those in his hand again."

Farley declined to comment on the possible penalties facing his client. Earlier this week, the lawyer said he hopes the judge will consider the fact that Barrett has no criminal record and admitted his involvement early.

Within hours of starting the fire, Barrett told his father--Ventura County Sheriff's Department Capt. James Barrett, who serves as Ojai's chief of police--that he and Schwermer were responsible.

"He's a good kid," Farley said of his client, a Nordhoff High student who is expected to graduate next month. "I don't see how jail is going to do a darn thing for him."

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.

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