Corral Fire suspects expected to plead guilty

Flames burn the hills above Malibu during the November 2007 fire that scorched 4,900 acres and destroyed 53 homes. Two of the four defendants who have been charged in the fire are expected to plead guilty. Photo by Dave Lichten / TMT

Attorneys for two of the suspects in the 2007 fire will not confirm or deny that they will plead guilty.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

The four remaining defendants accused of causing the 2007 Corral Canyon Fire are scheduled to appear at Van Nuys Courthouse April 13 for a pretrial conference, during which two are expected to plead guilty to all counts.

A fifth defendant, 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.

At Tuesday’s hearing, William Thomas Coppock, 25, and Brian Alan Anderson, 24, are likely to plead guilty to felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury and recklessly causing a fire to multiple inhabited structures. Motions to dismiss by the two men were rejected in February.

Anderson’s attorney, Upinder Kalra, on Tuesday this week neither confirmed nor denied the anticipated plea, but said, “That could possibly be happening. If a plea agreement were worked out we would avoid a trial.”

Coppock’s attorney, Andrew Flier, could not be reached for comment.

The other two defendants, Eric Matthew Ullman, 20, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 21, have not yet entered pleas.

The Corral Fire started after a number of individuals built an illegal campfire in a cave on state parkland at the top of Corral Canyon on Nov. 24, 2007. Embers from the fire sparked flames on the dry hillsides, which were fueled by roaring Santa Ana winds. Detectives found at the scene alcohol containers, food wrappers and bundled fire logs, which they were able to trace to the five men originally held accountable.

Prosecutors allege the blaze was started during and within an area of a state of emergency.

In addition, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has filed suit against the five defendants for $7.7 million. The CDF states it spent at least $7,728,362 fighting the fire, and is seeking compensation for negligence and violations of the Health and Safety Code, as well as costs. The fire destroyed 53 homes, damaged 35, burned 4,900 acres and forced the evacuation of 14,000 people.

Lavorante’s attorney, Ben W. Pesta II, on Tuesday said his client and Ullman “are less culpable than the other two [defendants]” because “they were not the ones who left the fire unattended and they were not the ones who kicked a burning pillow around outdoors.”

Responding to whether Ullman and Lavorante would also plead guilty at the upcoming hearing, Pesta II on Tuesday said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen on April 13. And when a lawyer says that, you know it’s true. We’ve had a number of continuances that have been initiated by Mr. Anderson and Mr. Coppock, and our case trails their case.”

Though Ullman’s attorney, Mark Werksman, could not be reached for comment, Pesta II added that “while Ullman and Lavorante are profoundly sorry for the unintended consequences, we should remember that those consequences were in fact unintended. This was just something that began as a minor act of incaution.”

Meanwhile, numerous Corral Canyon residents and fire victims are expected to attend the April 13 hearing, and are each preparing for it by submitting written statements that reflect how they were affected by the fire and the monetary value of what they lost to it, said Beverly Taki, coordinator of Operation Recovery, an organization that offers financial and emotional aid to Corral Canyon fire victims.

Corral Canyon resident Brooke Halpin, whose home was saved by firefighters, in a phone interview Tuesday said he hopes the defendants will plead guilty.

“I certainly hope it’s going to happen,” Halpin said. “The damage and the trauma and the loss these individuals have caused for my neighbors. Every time I cross my street or look out my window and I see the footprints of the foundations of my friends’ homes, it reminds me of the travesty of what happened. These individuals should be punished to the utmost, as far as I’m concerned.”

“It really devastated so many families,” Corral Canyon Fire victim Sarah Grisanti said in a previous interview. “Nobody told us who started the fire in 1993 but we know what happened in this fire. We have to bring them to justice.”