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5 suspected in Malibu fire

Investigators used trash from the site of a late-night party to identify the men.

December 14, 2007|Andrew Blankstein and Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County sheriff's arson detectives on Thursday named five men as suspects in the November brush fire in the hills above Malibu that destroyed more than 50 homes.

Authorities said the suspects -- ages 18 to 27 -- were having an illegal late-night campfire near a cave in Corral Canyon when the blaze broke out. Detectives found alcohol containers, food wrappers and bundled fire logs, and were able to trace the items to the suspects during the last month.

"Investigators began checking local businesses for any information regarding the purchase of these items," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

They quickly got their break at a nearby supermarket.

"They checked store receipts at a Ralphs market in Malibu and found one revealed a possible purchase of the items in question," Whitmore said. "With probable cause, they then got a search warrant allowing investigators to retrieve information from the debit card which authorities believe was used to purchase the items."

Authorities said the suspects, described as from working- and middle-class backgrounds, acted recklessly but not intentionally in starting the fire.

Each has been charged with two felony counts: recklessly causing a fire resulting in great bodily injury and recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure.

Because the blaze began in an area that had been declared in a state of emergency during the October brush fires, the men could face additional time if they are convicted. In all, prosecutors could seek as many as 10 years in prison.

The blaze broke out early Nov. 24, originating from a campfire near the mouth of Corral Canyon Cave, an area known as a late-night party hangout.

Fanned by Santa Ana winds gusting up to 60 mph, the flames raced south across hills and canyons, forcing scores of residents from their homes in darkness with little or no time to retrieve keepsakes and valuables.

By the time the fire was extinguished several days later, it had charred 4,900 acres and burned 53 homes beyond repair, causing $100 million in losses. Six firefighters were injured, including one who suffered a second-degree burn to his cheek.

Officials called it the worst blaze to hit the fire-prone area in more than a decade.

Carri Karuhn was out of the country when the Corral fire burned through her neighborhood early Nov. 24 and said she is devastated -- and angry -- after losing her home, two dogs and one cat.

"It doesn't make me feel any better in terms of what I lost, but I hope it brings some kind of accountability to this," said Karuhn, who has lived in Malibu for six years and is now living with friends. "Look what it's done to these people, myself included. . . . We're not going to recover our lives the same way."

The suspects were identified by sheriff's officials as Brian Allen Anderson, 22, William Thomas Coppock, 23, and Brian David Franks, 27, all of Los Angeles, and Eric Matthew Ullman, 18, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 19, both of Culver City, authorities said. Anderson, Coppock and Franks had been booked and were in custody as of late Thursday, according to the sheriff's inmate information website.

The suspects in custody are scheduled to be arraigned in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday.

Several of the suspects' families were contacted by The Times but refused to comment.

Authorities said five people were partying at the cave , when they were joined by another group that included the five suspects. Officials would not describe the precise events leading up to the blaze but said a campfire was set near the point of origin.

By the time arson investigators reached the site, no one was there. Still, they found key evidence including the alcohol containers, food wrappers and bundled fire logs.

The debit card search led investigators to a witness. Additional witnesses came forward during the last two weeks, leading to the issuing of two search warrants and scores of interviews with people as far away as Shasta County, near the Oregon border, Whitmore said.

Brooke Halpin, whose house sustained about $100,000 in damage from the Corral fire, says he remembers hearing laughter and honking about 2:30 a.m. the day of the fire.

"I didn't know what they were laughing about," he recalled Thursday.

An hour later, he evacuated his home as the fire rushed down the canyon. He returned two days later to find the fire had consumed part of his roof. It will take him two to three months to rebuild.

"I hope the penalties will be such that anyone thinking of doing something as reckless as they did won't do it," he said.

"It ruined people's lives. It's a disaster up here. I hope they're punished severely for their total lack of responsibility, their recklessness and their stupidity."

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

jp.renaud@latimes.com

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