CORRAL FIRE SUSPECTS APPEAR IN COURT

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Brian Alan Anderson, 22, is one of five suspects charged in connection with the Corral Fire.

A plea was not taken for the three suspects who appeared in court. Arrangements have been made for the other two to turn themselves into Sheriff’s officials on Monday. All five suspects will be arraigned next week on Friday.

By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

In a sudden schedule change, three of the five suspects in the Corral Fire appeared before a judge in Van Nuys Superior Court today. City of Los Angeles residents Brian Alan Anderson (22), William Thomas Coppock (23) and Brian David Franks (27) had not been scheduled to be arraigned until Monday. A plea was not taken, but the suspects’ attorneys said their clients did not start the campfire in the early hours of Nov. 24 that led to the destruction of 86 structures, including 53 homes. The final arraignment will take place next Friday.

The other two suspects, Culver City residents Eric Matthew Ullman (18) and Dean Allen Lavorante (19), are expected to turn themselves into Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials on Monday. They will also be arraigned next Friday.

Preliminary bail has been set for all the suspects at $240,000, but the final bail will be determined at the arraignment hearing.

The suspects have been charged with felony counts of causing a fire with great bodily injury and recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure. The fire was started “during and within an area of a state of emergency,” which could be a factor in sentencing if the suspects are convicted.

The blaze was believed to have started at approximately 3 a.m. on Nov. 24 in a cave at the top of Corral Canyon Road when an illegal campfire went out of control due to the strong Santa Anta winds. Ullman and Lavorante and two unidentified young women built a fire in the cave, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. They left after a second group arrived that included Anderson, Coppock and Franks.

“Embers from the fire touched off flames in the tinder dry hillside,” a press release from the District Attorney’s Office stated. “Whipped by 50 mph winds, the fire swept into homes in the area.”

The press release added that none of the defendants or their companions attempted to notify authorities about the fire.

“This wasn’t an oops,” District Attorney Steve Cooley said in the press release. “These charges reflect criminal recklessness that resulted in [six] injuries and the destruction of 53 homes and other structures.”

Cooley continued, “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 is a criminal act.”

The investigation into the fire was a joint effort by the county’s Sheriff’s and fire departments along with the California Department of Forestry. They found food wrappers and precut fire logs near the cave, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said at a press conference yesterday afternoon. Investigators checked with the local businesses regarding the purchase of the items, and soon determined they came from the Ralphs in Malibu Colony Plaza. Investigators then viewed surveillance tapes and searched through receipts. After obtaining a search warrant, they retrieved debit card information that led to two witnesses to the fire. Also, a citizen responding to a press release by arson investigators requesting information “offered valuable assistance,” Baca said.

“Scores of interviews were conducted at locations as far away as Shasta County and near the Oregon border,” Baca said.

The speed of the investigation impressed City Councilmember Ken Kearsley. “It’s amazing, some great detective work,” he said last night.

Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Conley Ulich also praised the investigators in an e-mail to The Times.

“Mixing campfires with Santa Ana winds and drought conditions is a recipe for disaster,” she wrote. “I hope those responsible for causing pain and suffering to innocent people will be brought to justice. I applaud the Sheriff’s Department for their fine detective work and hope that we can turn this horrible catastrophe into a learning moment for those who still believe that campfires should be encouraged in areas that are prone to wildfires and disaster.”

The Corral Fire destroyed 86 structures, including 53 homes. The damage has been estimated to be more than $100 million, Baca said. Six firefighters were injured, with one receiving second-degree burns to the face.