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Fire starter's intent is the key to possible murder charge

If the Station blaze was started on purpose, authorities say, the arsonist could be given the death penalty.

September 05, 2009|Carol J. Williams and Richard Winton

As authorities investigate suspected arson as the cause of the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history, prosecutors will be focused on one issue in their attempt to bring murder charges: intent.

If the Station fire was set on purpose, the arsonist could face the death penalty for the deaths of firefighters Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones. The two died Sunday in a vehicle accident while aiding a group of inmates battling the fire, which has destroyed more than 154,000 acres and 76 homes.

The suspect, if convicted and sent to death row, would follow Raymond Lee Oyler, the Beaumont mechanic sentenced to die in June for setting the 2006 Esperanza blaze that killed five firefighters.

Even if the fire was accidental, which investigators have hinted is unlikely, the starter could face jail time if charged and convicted of involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide resulting from a tossed cigarette, fuel spill or other careless act that caused the fire. Involuntary manslaughter carries at least a two-year sentence.

"For first-degree murder, the key for the state would be to prove intent to take the lives of the victims," said Stanford law professor Kara Dansky, executive director of the school's Criminal Justice Center.

Under the state's felony murder rule, a defendant who intentionally and premeditatively sets a fire can be found guilty of first-degree murder if someone dies as a result, she said.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has said investigators are probing the firefighters' deaths as homicides. A source told The Times that "material that didn't belong there" has been found at the site suspected to be where the fire started, a twice-scorched slope cordoned off by crime scene tape near Mile Marker 29 along Angeles Crest Highway.

The source would not identify the suspicious substance but said it was found in the brush off the highway, within walking distance of the turnoff at the center of the arson probe.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was an ongoing investigation, said the substance was taken to a lab for testing. The recovered material is not a device, according to the source.

An accidental spark ignited by a careless person hasn't been ruled out, Baca said, adding that in either case the department could pursue homicide charges.

"This is a homicide investigation and could result in murder charges depending on what the district attorney decides to file," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a $100,000 reward Friday night for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual or individuals responsible for setting the Station fire. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he was asking the county to offer a $50,000 reward.

Under California law, the following sentences apply, according to Dansky:

* First-degree murder: 25 years to life, life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty, depending on the circumstances of the crime. In the case of murder resulting from arson, the death penalty can be applied.

* Second-degree murder: 15 years to life, 20 years to life, 25 years to life or life without the possibility of parole, depending on the circumstances.

* Voluntary manslaughter: three, six or 11 years, plus enhancements for factors like use of a firearm or repeat offense.

* Involuntary manslaughter: two, three or four years, plus enhancements.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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