Corral Canyon fire defendants await sentencing

Paul Grisanti, at the Van Nuys Superior Courthouse June 9, shows photos of his home that was destroyed in the November 2007 Corral Canyon fire. Two of the defendants in the case plead no contest to charges of starting the fire. Photo by McKenzie Jackson

Sentencing for two of the defendants, who plead no contest to causing the November 2007 fire, is set for September.

By McKenzie Jackson / Special to The Malibu Times

Two of the five defendants in the Corral Canyon fire will be sentenced to at least a year in county jail and five years of probation for their part in starting the November 2007 Malibu fire that destroyed more than 50 home and injured six firefighters.

On June 2 in Van Nuys Superior Court, Brian Alan Anderson, 24, and William Thomas Coppock, 25, pled no contest to felony charges of recklessly starting a fire causing injury and causing an inhabited structure. Additional charges that the fire was started during a state of emergency, which could result in a state prison sentence, could be dismissed at the next court hearing.

Brian David Franks, 29, in 2008 agreed to a plea bargain in which he was sentenced to five years probation and 300 hours community service for his involvement with the fire. In addition, Franks agreed to testify against the other four defendants in the case. The two other defendants in the case, Eric Matthew Ullman, 20, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 21, have not yet entered pleas. They will appear in court on Sept. 9. Misdemeanor charges against the two are pending.

During the court hearing last week, Anderson and Coppock only spoke when Superior Court Judge Susan M. Speer addressed them. Anderson, dressed in a blue suit, and Coppock, in a gray one, never looked toward the seven Corral Canyon fire victims who were sitting in the courtroom’s gallery.

Also in the courtroom were more than a dozen of the defendants’ friends and family members.

Anderson and Coppock on June 9 began a 90-day jail term and evaluation period.

Speer said that during their three-month stint behind bars, psychologists, probation officials and other professionals will evaluate Anderson and Coppock to determine how much jail time they will serve after their next court appearance. The two will be sentenced Sept. 9.

Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Frances Young, the case prosecutor, said Anderson and Coppock would serve a minimum of 365 days in jail if their evaluations were favorable. She said the two would receive credit for their June to September stay in jail.

Terms of their probation will include 500 hours of community service, restitution to the fire victims, writing individual letters to all the victims, abstaining from the use of alcohol or drugs, and staying away from Corral Canyon.

Speer said the two defendants’ punishment is tough and fair.

“This is not a slap on the hand by any means,” she said.

Law enforcement officials allege that on Nov. 24, 2007 Coppock, Anderson and three other defendants went to a party spot on Corral Canyon State Park land overlooking Malibu to drink alcohol and started a campfire at a time when the area was under a wildfire warning because of low humidity and high winds.

Embers from the campfire sparked the fire that ravaged Corral Canyon and destroyed 53 homes, burned 4,900 acres and injured six firefighters.

“The results of their actions were catastrophic and caused damage beyond imagination,” Speer said. “I am mindful that in spite of this inexcusable conduct, there is no evidence the defendants intended to start the fire in the canyon or knew the fire had erupted. The attorneys tell me that the defendants are truly remorseful; I don’t know if that is true or not. I am mindful that the defendants did tell the police what happened after they were identified as potential suspects.”

The judge also said she hears the anguish of the fire’s victims loud and clear.

“After reading their letters, looking at their photographs and hearing their voices in court, I have an appreciation for the incredible devastation they suffered,” she said. “My heartfelt sympathy goes out to all the victims of the disastrous fire. I cannot know the pain you have suffered, but I imagine the anger and terror, and sadness and frustration you must be feeling.”

Paul Grisanti, 57, a resident of Corral Canyon for more than a decade before losing his home in the fire, said he is angry and sad because it has taken more than two years for a majority of the defendants to be punished by the law.

“I’m sitting here now and its two years and seven months after the fire … it seems a little slow,” he said. “I’m sure they are real sorry they got caught. I don’t think they have any concept of what they have done to the people that were involved.”

Dan Ostermiller, who lost his home in the fire, said the defendants committed a serious crime, but does not want to see their lives ruined.

“All-in-all I think it was a fair sentence as long as they have jail time,” he said. “I don’t mean that in a malicious way, I just want something that will give them some time to reflect and hopefully make some adjustments.”