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No criminal intentions in Corral fire, lawyers say

December 15, 2007|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

Attorneys for some of the suspects charged with setting last month's Corral fire said the men thought they had put out the campfire blamed for the blaze before they left.

The men, who had been scheduled to be arraigned on felony charges Friday in Van Nuys, were named Thursday by sheriff's detectives as suspects in the November brush fire that destroyed more than 50 homes in the hills above Malibu.

Authorities said the suspects -- ages 18 to 27 -- had set an illegal campfire near a cave in Corral Canyon when the blaze broke out.

In court Friday, Judge Michael Kellogg offered to recuse himself from the case, citing his involvement in rescuing horses, including one of his own, during the blaze.

Arraignment for Brian Allen Anderson, 22, William Thomas Coppock, 23, and Brian David Franks, 27, was pushed back at least a week.

The remaining suspects -- Eric Matthew Ullman, 18, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 19, both of Culver City -- are expected to surrender to authorities next week and will join the other defendants Friday for a bail hearing and to enter their formal pleas.

All five are charged with one count each of recklessly causing a fire resulting in injury and recklessly causing a fire damaging an inhabited dwelling.

Outside the Van Nuys courthouse, lawyers for Anderson and Coppock said their clients were remorseful but did not start the campfire, nor did they know that it had not been fully extinguished, allowing high winds to carry embers into the brush, igniting the blaze.

"When they left Malibu, they believed they had extinguished the fire," said attorney John J. Duran, who is representing Anderson.

"This was not intentional, which is key to a criminal case," added Coppock's lawyer, attorney Andrew Flier. "This is a civil matter. They are the scapegoats in this case."

Prosecutors are seeking enhanced jail time, alleging that the fire was set in an area where a state of emergency had been declared after fires in October.

"This wasn't an 'oops,' " Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement. "The law is clear. You cannot go into a high-fire danger area and for whatever reason build a fire. It's not only a recipe for disaster, it's a criminal act."

At a news conference announcing the charges, authorities said the suspects were among two groups of people who were having a party at the cave when a fire broke out after 3 a.m. on Nov. 24.

Sheriff's arson investigators traced key evidence -- including alcohol containers, food wrappers and bundled fire logs -- to a Ralphs supermarket in Malibu and quickly linked it to a witness' debit card.

Additional witnesses came forward during the last two weeks, leading authorities to issue two search warrants and conduct scores of interviews with people as far away as Shasta County, near the Oregon border, sheriff's officials said.

Flier and Duran said their clients had come forward six days into the investigation to tell their side of the story and did so without any legal representation. But they could not say precisely whom the men contacted.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore disputed any suggestion that the suspects came forward voluntarily, although he declined to comment on the substance and timing of any of the police interviews with Anderson and Coppock or others involved in the case.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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