Victims tell of painful losses Corral Fire caused

Malibu resident Jennifer Grossman speaks to the media after Friday’s court hearing where the Corral Fire defendants were expected to plead guilty. The hearing was continued to June 2. Photo by McKenzie Jackson / TMT

The four remaining defendants were expected to plead guilty, but once again the case has been continued.

By McKenzie Jackson / Special to The Malibu Times

Jennifer Grossman had always believed that her Malibu home represented a lifetime of hard work, investment and sacrifice.

That all came burning down when a massive blaze started by an illegal campfire ripped through Corral Canyon Park 30 months ago.

Grossman, along with other victims of the Nov. 24, 2007 Corral Canyon fire, received the opportunity to express her thoughts and feelings about the life-altering flames in court last week Friday.

At a pretrial hearing at the Van Nuys Superior Courthouse, nine residents of the canyon, who either sustained property damage or lost entire homes during the fire, testified before Superior Court Judge Susan M. Speer about the hardship the blaze has caused in their lives.

Heading into the 9 a.m. hearing, many expected defendants William Thomas Coppock, 25, and Brian Alan Anderson, 24, to announce they would plead guilty to felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury and recklessly causing a fire to multiple inhabited structures. Instead, attorneys for the defendants asked for a continuance, which was granted by Speer.

The judge set the next court date for June 2 at 8:30 a.m.

If Anderson and Coppock plead guilty, the other two defendants, Eric Matthew Ullman, 20, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 21, are expected to follow suit.

David Brian Franks, the case’s fifth defendant, agreed to a plea bargain in 2008 in exchange for testifying against the remaining defendants, and was sentenced to five years probation and 300 hours community service.

Speer said the case has taken three years for various reasons.

“I am trying to wrap it up as quickly as possible without having to go to trial,” she said. “If we have to go to trial we will. There have been no promises made and no deals have been struck with the court.”

She told the fire victims that she was sympathetic to their plight and wanted to hear their stories about the fire and their opinions on sentencing.

“I want you to be active participants in this process,” Speer said.

Grossman tearfully told Speer about how she and the other homeowners lost everything in the fire. She recalled how, after the fires’ flames were extinguished, she sifted through the rubble of her home, but could find nothing of value.

“The fire robbed me of more than just my home and worldly possessions, it has taken two years of my life. The insurance, the stressful process of dealing with these agencies … it’s not like I can take time off of work,” she said. “I have to continue to work so I can afford to do this. I rebuilt the home, but it is not the same.”

While giving their victim impact statements in court, the fire victims showed pictures of their residences before and after the blaze. Some had strong words for the four remaining defendants, who are accused of causing the early-morning inferno that destroyed 53 homes, damaged 35 residents and burned 4,900 acres.

Authorities say the four, along with Franks, went to a party spot on 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.

Carri Karhohn looked directly at the defendants and called them cowards. She also talked about her pet cat and dog, which both died in the fire.

“My animals were my children,” she said. “You took them away from me.”

Matt Haines, who had a storage container full of his mother’s belongings destroyed in the fire, called the fire “inexcusable.” Haines told Speer of how his friend at the time of the blaze, 96-year-old Ben Kennedy, was rescued from his home by a Sheriff’s deputy before flames consumed Kennedy’s house.

“These men are very lucky not to be sitting in this court facing murder charges,” Haines said. “I just hope the parents of these young men realize their actions are a result of how they raised them. It is the parents that teach children to be proper citizens in our community. They don’t teach them to set fires.”

Paul Morra said the defendants showed a total disregard for human life.

“I had about $10,000 worth of property damage myself, but I don’t consider myself a fire victim,” he said. “I still have my home, my personal possessions and heirlooms. I haven’t had to pay a mortgage on a house that no longer exists or been forced to foreclose because my insurance company only paid a fraction of the [rebuild] cost.”

Judi Pace, a canyon resident since 1974, called the fire a “terrifying experience,” and said the lives of her and her husband have been turned upside down.

“We’ve had to deal with insurance adjusters, public adjusters and numerous other agencies,” she said. “The fire has caused stress that is impossible to measure. Insurance doesn’t even come close to covering our losses.”

Pace told Speer that damages to her property and home caused by the fire have reached $350,000.

“These financial losses have impacted and delayed our retirement plans,” she said. “Since you suggested that we address sentencing, I think state prison with this extreme recklessness, selfishness and negligence is warranted followed by restitution, along with probation that should not allow the perpetrators into the Santa Monica Mountains from Topanga to the Ventura County line.”

Grossman, vice president of the one-year-old Corral Canyon Fire Safety Alliance, said after court that she wanted all of the accused fire starters to get the maximum sentence the law allows.

“I would like this to be a message,” said Grossman, who added that members of the safety alliance patrol Corral Canyon weekly. “We find people up there still carrying torches, still smoking, still partying, so the message hasn’t gotten through. A strong verdict would send the message that this is not going to be tolerated.”