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Orange County

Costly Condo Blaze Blamed on Texas Boy

Crime: Charges follow a four-month probe in San Clemente. A summer visitor, he allegedly 'wanted to see what a big fire would look like.'

January 05, 2002|MAI TRAN and MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 12-year-old Texas boy was charged Friday with setting a San Clemente brush fire that tore through Trafalgar Canyon in August, destroying six homes and causing more than $4 million in property damage.

The boy was spending the summer with a family in San Clemente and "wanted to see what a big fire would look like," said Tori Richards, a spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office. He allegedly tossed matches into parched brush at the bottom of the coastal canyon near San Clemente Pier, prosecutors said.

Two other minor boys--brothers in the home where the suspect was staying--witnessed the fire but have not been charged, officials said. The brothers tried to snuff out the fire, but the suspect held them back, authorities said.

The charges cap a four-month investigation by the Orange County Fire Authority, which officials said was complicated by reluctant witnesses and lengthy negotiations with the suspect's family and lawyer.

"Investigators had a good idea initially who did this, but they still had to do a lot of work," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Joe Williams. "There was a lot of reluctance on the part of a lot of people to come forward. Also, when you're dealing with a minor, there's a presumption that they don't know right from wrong. The investigators had to prove that he knew he was doing something wrong."

Prosecutors did not name any of the boys involved because they are minors. John Barnett, the suspect's lawyer, declined to comment on the matter Friday.

The boy, who lives with his parents in El Paso, remains there. Prosectors say they hope the family will bring him to Orange County voluntarily, where he will be tried in Juvenile Court on three counts of arson to an inhabited structure and one count of arson to a forest. If the boy's family refuses to bring him to California, prosecutors will seek to extradite him, Richards said.

At the site of the fire Friday, residents and victims expressed relief that charges had been filed, but had sympathy for the suspect. Neighbors said the boy and the two brothers were often seen skateboarding and fooling around.

"It's a terrible burden for a 12-year-old; it's real sad," said Barbara Sullivan. Sullivan and her husband, Richard, lost their condo to the fire and now live in a rental unit a mile away. They are trying to rebuild the gutted condo.

"I'm not mad at him," Sullivan said. "I feel bad for him. . . . It's a hard lesson for this child."

The fire erupted at 3:20 p.m. Aug. 1, as the boys played along the beach-side canyon. Prosecutors say that after setting the fire, the suspect prevented the others from stopping it because he wanted to see how large it would grow. When the blaze got out of control, the suspect allegedly told a nearby lifeguard about it and ran.

Fueled by ocean breezes and heavy coastal sage, the fire raced up a steep, quarter-mile slope before engulfing a million-dollar condominium complex on Cazador Lane. The fire then jumped to a second complex and destroyed more units.

No one was injured in the fire, but dozens of residents were forced to evacuate as more than 100 firefighters battled the blaze. Several witnesses reported seeing two or three teenagers running from the area near the beach where the fire broke out.

The district attorney's office said it will seek victim restitution from the boy's parents.

Residents of the neighborhood said the boys were a fixture of the summer scene and were known for their mischievousness.

"They were bright boys," said Gayle Pentoney, who lives next to several condos that were destroyed.

As an example, Pentoney said the boys figured out how to open an automobile security gate from the outside, which allowed them access to a hot tub in one condo complex.

Today, scorched foundations are all that remain of many of the homes. Yellow caution tape still rings many properties, and lots have been gated off.

Lynda Carpenter, whose home shared a wall with a condo that was reduced to cinders, said her family is still struggling to cope with the disaster. Her brother, she said, still gets upset when he sees fires broadcast on television.

"It's sad how many lives it has impacted. People have gotten sick, they've gotten stressed out, and it's still going on," Carpenter said. "It's mind-boggling."

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