Criminal case, lawsuit pending one year after Corral Fire

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The arraignment for two of the suspects in the fire will take place Dec. 11. Meanwhile, those who lost homes in the fire await the civil case against the state, still in its opening stage.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

Both the victims and the alleged perpetrators of the Corral Fire have their fates in the hands of the California court system. Four of the five suspects accused of starting a bonfire that got out of control in an area above the canyon known as The Cave are awaiting possible trial, while the fifth suspect has confessed. Meanwhile, 96 residents who lost their home or incurred damage in the blaze filed a lawsuit against the state last month, alleging the California Department of Parks and Recreation ignored years of complaints by neighbors about partying in the area where the fire started.

The five suspects were charged nearly a month after the Nov. 24 blaze following a joint investigation by the county’s Sheriff’s and fire departments along with the California Department of Forestry. Investigators found food wrappers and precut fire logs near The Cave. They then checked with local businesses regarding the purchase of the items, and soon determined they came from the Ralphs grocery store in Malibu Colony Plaza. Investigators viewed surveillance tapes and searched through receipts. After obtaining a search warrant, they retrieved debit card information that led to two witnesses, and eventually to the suspects.

The three Los Angeles residents and two Culver City residents were charged with felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury and recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure. Prosecutors allege the blaze was started “during and within an area of a state of emergency,” which would require a mandatory state prison sentence if the suspects were convicted.

Brian David Franks, 28, admitted to a Van Nuys Superior Court judge last month through a statement read by his attorney that he, along with fellow Los Angeles residents Brian Alan Anderson, 23, and William Thomas Coppock, 24, rekindled an abandoned campfire in The Cave in the early hours of Nov. 24. He will appear in court on Dec. 11 for sentencing. Prosecutors are expected to ask for five years probation and 300 hours community service. As part of the deal, Franks has agreed to testify against Anderson and Coppock as well as Culver City residents Eric Matthew Ullman, 19, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 20, the two men who are accused of starting the initial bonfire, and then abandoning it before the arrival of the Los Angeles trio.

The attorneys of Ullman and Lavorante say they are in discussions with the prosecution, as well, for a possible deal.

“They have been in good faith on both sides,” said Lavorante’s attorney, Ben W. Pesta II, in August about the discussions.

The arraignment hearing for Ullman and Lavorante has been delayed several times since they were first charged. They are due in court for their arraignment on Dec. 11.

Anderson and Coppock are scheduled to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on Dec. 5. The duo pleaded not guilty last year.

None of the suspects or their attorneys have denied being at The Cave around the time the fire began, but they have denied what happened was a crime. And allegations were made that the only reason for the charges was because the fire took place in a wealthy city.

“I will say it until this case is over, the politics and scapegoat issue are why we are all here, period,” said Ullman’s attorney, Andrew Flier, at a press conference last December. “It’s a civil matter against five indigent people, basically. Where is that going to get anyone? That’s why we’re in criminal land.”

State case pending

Meanwhile, the civil case is in its opening stage. The suit does not request a specific amount of money, but earlier this year fire victims and insurance companies filed approximately $513.2 million worth of claims against the state. All the claims were rejected by a state board that said the matter should be handled in a courtroom. The insurance companies are not involved in this suit.

The suspects are not named in the suit. The complaint was written by four lawyers from Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack, which is known for its success in the famous “Erin Brockovich” environmental case. The complaint reads, “The state had the duty to maintain the park in a safe condition and a duty to eliminate any known dangerous condition that existed on the public property. The state breached its duty by failing to take appropriate measures to eliminate the dangerous condition.”

Malibu attorney James Devitt is also handling the case.

State Parks spokesperson Roy Stearns did not comment on the lawsuit specifically when interviewed last month, but he said it was unfair to blame the fire on the state agency.

“We were listening and taking action regarding the concerns of the residents by patrolling the area more, increasing the amount of times we were clearing the area of people who were there doing illegal activity,” Stearns said. “And we increased the citations for those who had illegal fires.”

The fire started a little after 3 a.m. Nov. 24. State Parks officials last year said the last patrol took place at 10 p.m., and no illegal activity was seen at that time. Malibu Realtor Paul Grisanti, who lost his home in the fire and is a plaintiff in the suit along with his wife, Sara, said last month that State Parks handles the property in a way that would not be tolerated if it were done by a private citizen.

“State Parks has been operating that park at the top of the canyon under a system of benign neglect for years, and they have been notified many, many times by homeowners that it was being utilized for parties and fires,” Grisanti said. “And their response was ‘we don’t have the personnel.’ And if you or I had a property where we allowed people to have drunken parties and we responded that way to our neighbors, they would probably have no problem suing us for failing to take care of our property and endangering their lives.”