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D.A. Takes Hard Line on Looting Amid Fire

San Bernardino County's D.A. will seek harsh sentences against the five suspects held in home burglaries during the emergency.

November 12, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Local prosecutors Tuesday said they would seek the stiffest sentences possible against the people charged with looting homes during the devastating wildfires that swept through Southern California and forced evacuations just over two weeks ago.

Five suspects were arrested during the fires in San Bernardino County, and one man was arrested in San Diego County.

"We don't have any sympathy for these people," said Marc Guillory, a deputy district attorney in San Bernardino County. "It's shameful that people would take advantage of a life-and-death situation and force officers who could've helped in saving homes or evacuations to risk their own lives to apprehend these looters."

Sgt. Ben Boswell of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's Twin Peaks station said his office has taken an estimated 45 calls from mountain residents reporting missing property or signs of a break-in.

Boswell said the estimated value of stolen items is "minuscule," adding that he expects more similar reports once residents who own vacation homes in the mountains have an opportunity to return.

"We've checked out some of those homes for people who've called us already, and most are fine," Boswell said. "It's not nearly as bad as it could have been."

The five looting suspects facing charges in San Bernardino County are accused of burglarizing homes in San Bernardino shortly after the wildfires tore through city neighborhoods.

Robert Wayne Legaretta and Donald Ray Payseur were charged with burglarizing a home on Osbun Road in San Bernardino on Oct. 25. Legaretta, also known by the last name of Dennis, and Payseur are due back in Superior Court on Tuesday. They will stand trial for first-degree residential burglary and receiving stolen property and, if convicted, face up to six years in prison, Guillory said.

In a separate incident, Patthaya Wattanachinda and Michael Howard, both 21 and from San Bernardino, were charged with stealing guns and jewelry Oct. 28 from homes in the badly burned Del Rosa neighborhood. On Monday, a judge ordered them to stand trial.

"We're going to prosecute these cases like we would any other [burglary] case, but the fact that it happened during an emergency will likely have a strong impact on the public, and I'm sure the judge will consider that fact once it comes time for sentencing," Guillory said.

Prosecutors allege that Legaretta and Payseur were joined by a juvenile. The young teenager will be tried in the county's juvenile division and is the younger brother of the juvenile facing murder charges in the slaying of Highland teenager Christy McKendall in San Bernardino's Little Sand Canyon in April 2002. Jonathan Lee Stephens, 19, also is charged in that killing."Those three hooked up, and when everyone was leaving the fire scene, they went in," Guillory said. "When approached by an officer, they said they were helping a friend move. As the fire was engulfing the neighborhood, some residents were able to tell police those guys didn't belong."

Officers arrested the three at the scene, allegedly stopping them with stolen sex toys, alcohol and female undergarments.

Another alleged fire crime became a federal case. A Colorado man allegedly stole nearly $5,000 worth of firefighting equipment at the Old fire command center.

John Gilbert Herrera Jr., 55, was arrested last week after allegedly stealing property of the United States government, including shovels, fireproof clothes and tents, on Defense Department property across the street from San Bernardino International Airport. The crime carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.

Authorities said they were relieved that there were not more fire-related crimes, although a parolee from the San Bernardino Mountains community of Valley of Enchantment was arrested Oct. 29 for allegedly burglarizing at least six homes near where the Old fire raged in Cedar Pines Park. The alleged burglar, William Theriot, 39, is being jailed in Rancho Cucamonga.

Brochures warning residents to avoid fraud and scams, such as contributions to suspect charities, have been distributed by the San Bernardino County district attorney's office. Sheriff's spokesmen said they have had no reports of such schemes.

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