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Hunter's Role in Cedar Fire Probed

A grand jury is deciding whether anyone may be criminally responsible for the deadly blaze.

August 25, 2004|William Wan | Times Staff Writer

Every week, San Diego County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Weldon flies his helicopter over burned treetops, singed buildings and blackened hills -- where 10 months ago today the state's most destructive wildfire devoured the land.

Weldon was there the afternoon it started. He can't forget the plume of black smoke he spotted on that first day, and his thoughts often turn to the 15 people who died in the days after. He also thinks about the man he believes started the blaze -- a lost hunter from West Covina.

"I wonder how he's doing. I wonder how he feels about it all," Weldon said. "I'm just wondering how his conscience is."

Weldon and his partner, Rocky Laws, are set to go before a federal grand jury in San Diego today to testify about the early hours of the Cedar fire. The grand jury is delving into one of the last pieces of unfinished business in the fire's aftermath: Should anyone be held criminally responsible?

Officials from the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on their investigation or say whether an individual was targeted. But the attorney for the hunter said he believed prosecutors were trying to build a criminal case against his client, Sergio E. Martinez.

Relatives and neighbors say Martinez, 34, has been a virtual recluse since the fire. He has received death threats and prank calls. He lives with his parents at his childhood home in West Covina, leaving the house only for work.

"He's scared out of his wits," said his cousin, Jose Martinez, who is serving as his attorney. "He's afraid he might be prosecuted for something that was a mistake ... an accident of nature."

Despite numerous "after action" reports on the fire, exactly what sparked the blaze Oct. 25 remains in dispute. Since the investigation began, prosecutors have forbidden officers to talk about the exact method of ignition.

Martinez was hunting with a friend in the Cleveland National Forest in northern San Diego County the afternoon of the fire. Martinez somehow became separated from his companion and wandered alone for several hours.

According to emergency radio transcripts, U.S. Forest Service officials initially believed that Martinez fired a round from his gun, which caught dry brush on fire. But dispatchers say on the radio transmissions that Martinez intentionally set a fire in hopes of getting the attention of rescuers.

Federal officials would not say what charges Martinez might face. Burning timber on federal land is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. State law makes unlawfully causing a fire a crime punishable by up to six years in prison. The punishment in both jurisdictions rises if prosecutors can prove arson, which requires "malicious and willful intent."

Laurie L. Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the key was proving that the fire had been set intentionally.

"The issue here is identifying who set the flames and proving it was willful or accidental," she said.

It also remains a question how much Martinez could be held responsible for damage by the fire, which burned more than 2,000 homes. Several studies produced in the wake of the fire criticized government agencies for being slow to respond and for lacking adequate resources to combat a major brush fire. For example, officials decided not to send a water-dropping aircraft over the fire immediately after it was spotted because it was too close to the evening cutoff time for launching such missions.

The events of that night have since hung over Martinez's life, thrusting him under scrutiny by prosecutors and the media, family members said.

Martinez was a wrestler in high school, neighbors in West Covina said, and heavily into martial arts. In 1995, Martinez graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a bachelor's degree in accounting.

Martinez has declined all interviews and rarely appears around his neighborhood.

At Martinez's home, his father, Filomena Martinez, 57, refused to speak about his son.

"No, we have no time to talk," he said, slamming the door. "You people keep coming to bother us."

Martinez's lawyer said his client has expressed remorse about the fire and those who died because of it. "Obviously he feels terrible about what happened," Jose Martinez said.

But exactly what happened will be a subject for the grand jury to examine.

Weldon and Laws received a call Oct. 25 to search for the hunter at 5:44 p.m., according to the Sheriff's Department's incident report. At 5:51 p.m., they saw a fire about the size of 50 square yards and spotted Martinez just upwind from it, sitting on a group of rocks and waving his arms frantically.

Laws and Weldon landed the chopper and waded through 10-foot-high brush to reach Martinez.

The deputies found Martinez delirious and disoriented, according to the records. He said he had been outdoors since morning, hiking up and down a steep ravine. He couldn't walk because his legs had cramped up, according to sheriff's reports.

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