Five suspects charged in Corral Canyon fire

From top: Brian Alan Anderson, Brian David Franks, Dean Allen Lavorante, Eric Matthew Ullman, William Thomas Coppock

The attorney for one of the suspects says no crime was committed. He calls his client “a good kid.”

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

Five men ranging in ages 18 to 27 have been charged in connection with last month’s Corral Fire, Malibu’s most damaging blaze since 1993. The suspects have been charged with two felony counts, and could face several years in prison if convicted. Authorities say the blaze was created after an illegal campfire built in a cave at the top of Corral Canyon Road got out of control. The attorneys of two of the suspects have not denied that their clients attended the party or that there was a campfire, but they say their clients are not criminally responsible.

The suspects are Los Angeles residents Brian Alan Anderson, 22, William Thomas Coppock, 23, and Brian David Franks, 27 as well as Culver City residents Eric Matthew Ullman, 18, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 19. They were charged last Thursday with recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury and recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure. The fire was started “during and within an area of a state of emergency,” which could be a factor in sentencing if the suspects are convicted.

The arraignment hearing for Anderson and Coppock was to take place Monday at Van Nuys Superior Court, but it was continued to Feb. 14. They are free on $240,000 bail each.

The other three suspects, who appeared before Judge Michael Kellogg in the Van Nuys court on Friday, did not post bail and remain in custody at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. No formal plea was taken from the suspects Friday. Their formal arraignment and bail hearing will take place Friday this week.

Speaking to the media outside the courthouse, attorneys John Duran, representing Anderson, and Andrew Flier, counsel for Coppock, said a group that arrived at the cave prior to their clients built the campfire (a fact agreed on by the District Attorney’s Office, although the size of that group is disputed). And, the lawyers said, when Anderson, Coppock and Franks left the area, they believed they had put out the campfire.

Flier said in an interview on Tuesday that his client and the other defendants were being used as scapegoats.

“I don’t think it’s right to blame these guys,” Flier said. “I don’t think anybody deliberately tried to burn down Malibu. They went to a party to have a good night, and after the fact, something got totally ugly and out of control.”

Flier added he does not believe anybody should be held responsible for creating the fire, which injured six firefighters and destroyed 86 structures, including 53 homes at an estimated cost of at least $100 million.

“It’s just like a car accident,” he said. “People have insurance because accidents happen. Nobody likes them, but they happen.”

Flier said his client did drink beer at the party, but he was not intoxicated.

“They were having fun,” Flier said. “They were just having fun, not doing anything illegal.”

Flier added that he was “baffled” by the charge involving “causing bodily injury,” since the injured were firefighters, including one who received second-degree burns to the face.

“Isn’t that his job?” Flier asked rhetorically about the firefighter. “Doesn’t he assume the risk?”

Sheriff Lee Baca said at a press conference announcing the charges last Thursday that the fire started at approximately 3 a.m. Nov. 24. Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said last month they received the first call about the fire after 3:30 a.m. Some Corral Canyon residents told the media they heard a honking car horn possibly warning about a fire at approximately 2:30 a.m.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office says Ullman and Lavorante, and two unidentified young women built the campfire (Flier says that group included more people). Later, Anderson, Coppock and Franks arrived. At some point those three were the only people remaining at the party, authorities said, and that is when the Santa Ana-wind driven blaze was created.

“Embers from the fire touched off flames in the tinder dry hillside,” a press release from the District Attorney’s Office stated. “Whipped by 50 mph winds, the fire swept into homes in the area.”

Flier said prior to his client leaving the scene, he and his friends believed they had put out the campfire.

“They were stomping on it and trying to put out the campfire,” he said. “They thought they had done it successfully. The prosecution is going to have a very difficult time proving they are responsible for this fire.”

The district attorney’s press release added that none of the defendants or their companions attempted to notify authorities about the fire. Flier said this was true on the day of the fire, but his client began cooperating less than a week later.

The investigation into the fire was a joint effort by the county’s Sheriff’s and fire departments along with the California Department of Forestry. Investigators found food wrappers and precut fire logs near the cave, Sheriff Baca said at the press conference Thursday. Investigators checked with local businesses regarding the purchase of the items, and soon determined they came from the Ralphs in Malibu Colony Plaza. They then viewed surveillance tapes and searched through receipts. After obtaining a search warrant, they retrieved debit card information that led to two witnesses to the fire. Also, a citizen responding to a press release by arson investigators requesting information, “offered valuable assistance,” Baca said.

“Scores of interviews were conducted at locations as far away as Shasta County and near the Oregon border,” Baca said.

The speed of the investigation impressed City Councilmember Ken Kearsley. “It’s amazing; some great detective work,” he said Thursday night.

Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Conley Ulich also praised the investigators in a Thursday e-mail to The Malibu Times.

“Mixing campfires with Santa Ana winds and drought conditions is a recipe for disaster,” she wrote. “I hope those responsible for causing pain and suffering to innocent people will be brought to justice. I applaud the Sheriff’s Department for their fine detective work and hope that we can turn this horrible catastrophe into a learning moment for those who still believe that campfires should be encouraged in areas that are prone to wildfires and disaster.”

Meanwhile, Flier said he wants people to know that his client is not a bad person.

“I’ve got a good kid here,” Flier said. “He has no malice.”