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California and the West

A Final Flare-Up From Disastrous 1990 Fire

Courts: Rural landowner found liable for Santa Barbara blaze could face $2.8-million penalty. But criminal prosecution for a fatality has been frustrated.

November 07, 2000|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — They were two of the most destructive hours in California history. Between 6 and 8 p.m. on a blistering day--June 27, 1990--a wind-whipped inferno roared out of the rugged hills above town, destroying 427 homes and 11 public buildings, including the Honor Farm jail.

Miraculously, but still tragically, only one person died, a 37-year-old woman who vainly sought shelter from the flames in a creek behind her house.

The $250-million Painted Cave arson fire went unsolved for a decade. But a judge is now considering whether to impose a $2.8-million penalty on a self-described artist/inventor found liable for starting the fire as part of a long-running feud with a neighbor.

Judge Denise deBellefeuille's ruling, expected this week, may write the final chapter in a tangled saga of petty backwoods rivalries that allegedly raged out of control and threatened an entire city. But it probably won't satisfy people who remember the terror of that blaze, which one resident called "as close to Armageddon as I want to get."

They will no doubt feel that Lenny Ross got away with murder. Or at least that he got off light by escaping a jail sentence. As with O.J. Simpson, Ross was found culpable in a civil trial, after the county decided it did not have enough evidence to file a murder charge.

Sheriff Jim Thomas said he is relieved that somebody is finally paying a price for the catastrophe, which sheriff's officials said might be the "largest crime loss ever in the history of the United States."

Ross, 48, who earns a living making solar-powered butterflies and selling them at craft fairs, maintains his innocence. He said the fire was pinned on him as part of a conspiracy to steal his land.

"My biggest problem," he said in a parched, low voice in an interview at an IHOP restaurant, "is my story is so fantastic, who's going to believe it?"

He was right about one thing. It was about the land, the love of it, the lust for it, and the willingness to fight to preserve it.

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Calls about disputes between neighbors, said Sheriff Thomas, are among the most unpleasant a cop receives. They're usually over things that seem trivial--but are anything but to the people involved.

"There is tremendous hate in these situations," Thomas said. And so it was up in the hills of Los Padres National Forest north of Santa Barbara.

Over the years, a number of reclusive types had moved in and scraped out a living in the steep, poison ivy-covered landscape below San Marcos Pass. Lenny Ross had 40 acres at the end of a tortuous, 3 1/2-mile dirt lane winding through a steep canyon.

Ross is not a muscular man; he stands about medium height, has long hair in a knot behind his head and a full beard. He has an intense, sidelong way of looking at you, and that morning at IHOP he wore a wrinkled white shirt and carried a backpack that made him look more like an overage college student than a figure of infamy.

Though not physically imposing, he is good with his hands. He rebuilt an old shack into a serviceable house. A short distance away is a concrete bunker-like shed where he assembles his butterflies, whose wings flap under power provided by a solar cell.

Ross values--and guards--his privacy. When a visitor hiked in to see him last week, he was warned to "shout out" as he approached to avoid being shot.

Many of the arguments that flared up among Ross and his neighbors were over one thing: the dirt road that was their lifeline to the outside world.

There were complaints, according to officials, that Ross left cars and other junk on the road. One time, the Sheriff's Department was called to settle a dispute over work that Ross and others were doing on a bridge spanning a creek on someone else's property. Ross filed suit against an avocado ranch he said had drained the ground water.

But the man with whom Ross had the most serious problems was Michael Linthicum. By 1996, sheriff's officials had documented 22 complaints between the two. Ross said that his phone line was cut repeatedly, that dirt was put into the gas tank of his tractor and that the lug nuts on his car were loosened.

Linthicum, who has lived in the area for 26 years, is wary when he talks about Ross. "It's sad that there are people like that," he said.

Just four months before the fire, Linthicum's property insurance lapsed. Ross heard about that, said a former girlfriend who later testified against him.

According to a search warrant affidavit, Peggy Finley said Ross was so frustrated by the long-running conflict with his neighbor that he talked about killing Linthicum. One plan, Finley said, involved his taking Linthicum up in a 1946 Cessna that Ross kept at the Santa Barbara Airport and pushing him out once they were over the sea.

A 106-Degree Day in a Drought Year

In 1990, Southern California was laboring through a drought year. In the mountains above Santa Barbara, the brush was dry as tinder and thick with 35 years of growth since the last fire. On June 27, the temperature topped out at 106.

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