One suspect’s attorney calls his client “a decent young man who meant no harm.”
By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor
The two Culver City residents charged with causing the November Corral Fire appeared in court Thursday morning for the first time. The session was brief, with Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Michael K. Kellogg granting a request by their attorneys for a continuance of the arraignment hearing.
Eric Matthew Ullman, 18, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 19, will return to court on April 2, at which time they will submit their formal pleas and a date will possibly be set for a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for a trial. The other three suspects—city of Los Angeles residents Brian Alan Anderson, 22, William Thomas Coppock, 23 and Brian David Franks, 27—pleaded not guilty in December. They are scheduled to return to court on March 3 to set a preliminary hearing date.
Lavorante’s attorney, Ben W. Pesta II, said the request for the continuance was made because he and Mark Werksman, Ullman’s lawyer, had recently received a “voluminous” amount of interview transcripts and other evidence needing to be reviewed.
After the court hearing, Pesta and Werksman characterized their clients as good people who did not commit a crime.
“My client is a decent young man who meant no harm,” Werksman said. “What happened that night was a terrible accident that was totally beyond his control.”
Pesta said, “At the very worst, this was an act of incaution with consequences no one could foresee, which everyone profoundly regrets.”
The two lawyers would not discuss specifics about the case, but they suggested their clients had less to do with causing the blaze than the three Los Angeles suspects.
“There are vastly different levels of culpability between the two groups of defendants,” Werksman said.
According to a press release issued by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in December, Lavorante and Ullman were the first to appear at an area at the top of Corral Canyon Road known as The Cave in the late hours of Nov. 23. The Los Angeles trio arrived later. A campfire started at the location got out of control and led to Malibu’s most destructive fire since 1993.
The five suspects are charged with felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury and recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure. The District Attorney’s Office says 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. Attorneys for Coppock and Franks said last month they do not believe there was a state of emergency in effect when the fire began.
Although the two sets of suspects have appeared in court at different times, all five men are still technically being charged in the same case. Werksman and Pesta said Thursday a request for separate trials might be made. The Los Angeles trio might not be tried together either, with the lawyers for those suspects saying they might request a severance.
The Corral Fire burned 4,900 acres and destroyed 86 structures, including 53 homes. Thirty-seven vehicles and a mobile home were also destroyed. Another 45 structures, including 33 homes, were damaged. Six firefighters were injured, including one who received second-degree burns to the face.