Corral Fire suspect released from jail

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Lawyers for two of the suspects say the charge that the fire in Malibu occurred during a state of emergency is not accurate.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

The only jailed suspect in the Malibu Corral Fire, Brian David Franks, was released Monday on his own recognizance by Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Leslie A. Dunn. Prosecutor Sam Dordulian did not object to the release.

“We do not feel he will pose a threat to the public at this time,” Dordulian said.

Franks’ attorney, Douglas Goldstein, had requested his client be released during the Dec. 21 arraignment hearing. But Judge Michael K. Kellogg refused unless Franks paid the $100,000 bail. Goldstein said his client could not afford that amount.

“He’s been coping with difficult times up at the jail, so I’m very happy he’s getting out,” Goldstein said outside the courtroom on Monday.

The other four suspects have been free on bail since last month.

Franks, 27, was in court on Monday along with codefendants Brian Alan Anderson, 22, and William Thomas Coppock, 23, for what was supposed to be a preliminary hearing to determine if there was enough evidence to put them on trial. But with the defense attorneys just having received new evidence from the prosecution, including a 40-page document from an investigation by “two agencies,” the hearing was continued.

The three suspects will appear in court again on March 3, at which time a new preliminary hearing date will be set.

Culver City residents Eric Matthew Ullman, 18, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 19, are scheduled to be arraigned on Feb. 14.

The five men have been 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 has also alleged that the fire started during a governor-declared state of emergency, which, if proven, would require a mandatory state prison sentence.

Following Monday’s hearing, Goldstein and Andrew Flier, Coppock’s attorney, said in separate interviews they have been researching the state of emergency allegation, and believe one had not been declared when the fire started in the early hours of Nov. 24. Rather, the attorneys said, the state of emergency was declared after the fire had begun.

“It’s the key to the whole case,” Flier said. “[The other charges] are wobblers that could get probation, or a misdemeanor with local time. Count three is a mandatory state prison commitment and the [sentence] enhancements. So clearly [the state of emergency allegation] for the government and us lawyers is the most important charge in this case.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement that was placed on his Web site Nov. 24 after the fire had started in which he “reactivated” the state of emergency from Southern California’s October fires.

If the case does reach trial, there is the possibility that some of the defendants would be tried separately. At last month’s arraignment hearing, Goldstein called his client “the least culpable” and read a statement from an investigator’s report indicating Franks attempted to put out the fire that started on the top of Corral Canyon at an area known as The Cave, while the others did nothing. Flier said after the hearing that Goldstein’s comments were inappropriate, and said he might request separate trials. Goldstein said on Monday separate trials might be possible.

“Each person has their own lawyer and everyone has their own comments,” Goldstein said.

The Corral Fire burned nearly 5,000 acres of land and destroyed 86 structures, including 53 homes. Also, six firefighters were injured, with one receiving second-degree burns to the face.