Arraignment delayed for two Corral Fire suspects

Culver City residents Eric Matthew Ullman and Dean Allen Lavorante will be arraigned in February. Los Angeles residents Brian Alan Anderson, William Thomas Coppock and Brian David Franks are scheduled to be arraigned on Friday.

By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

The arraignment hearing for the two Culver City residents charged with being involved in last month’s Corral Fire was supposed to take place today at Van Nuys Superior Court, but it was announced early this afternoon that the hearing has been continued to Feb. 14. No reason was given for the continuance.

Culver City residents Eric Matthew Ullman, 18, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 19, surrendered to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials Friday afternoon. They were released in the evening after posting $240,000 bail each.

The three other suspects, who appeared before Judge Michael Kellogg in the Van Nuys court on Friday, did not post bail and remain in custody. Los Angeles residents Brian Alan Anderson, 22, William Thomas Coppock, 23, and Brian David Franks, 27, are being held at the Men’s Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles. No formal plea was taken from the suspects on Friday, but lawyers for Anderson and Coppock said their clients are innocent.

Speaking to the media outside the courthouse, attorneys John Duran, representing Anderson, and Andrew Flier, counsel for Coppock, said a group that had been in the cave prior to their clients built the campfire. And, the lawyers said, when the group of three left the area they believed they had fully put out the flames.

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Anderson, Coppock and Franks will appear in court on Friday for a formal arraignment and bail hearing. Their preliminary bail has been set at $240,000 each.

The five suspects were charged on Thursday with two felony counts, 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. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office says Ullman and Lavorante, and two unidentified young women built the campfire. They left after a second group arrived, which 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. Investigators found food wrappers and precut fire logs near the cave, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. The investigators checked with the local businesses regarding the purchase of the items, and soon determined they came from the Ralphs in Malibu Colony Plaza. They 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 Thursday night.

Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Conley Ulich also praised the investigators in a Thursday e-mail to The Malibu 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.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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