SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — When arson investigators went looking for the person who set a blaze that scorched 60 square miles and destroyed 21 homes, Linda Conner says she knew right where to send them.
Minutes after the fire broke out, Conner said, she had raced up a hill toward the source of the flames. At the top, she saw a stunned-looking 10-year-old boy and his parents frantically trying to beat the flames down with towels.
“There’s no reason to talk to other people,” Conner, a horse trainer at the ranch where the fire started, recalled telling arson investigators. “You need to go straight up the road and talk to that boy.”
The 10-year-old quickly admitted he had been playing with matches.
On Thursday, as authorities considered whether to file criminal charges, neighbors gave conflicting accounts of the boy’s behavior.
Denise Tomey, who runs the Carousel Ranch where the boy lived in a small trailer with his family, described him as a quiet child who often played outside with his brother and the family’s small white and tan dog, Spike.
“From what I know, he’s a good kid,” said Tomey, executive director of the ranch, which provides riding lessons to developmentally disabled children. The boy’s father tends horses there and the boy attends a nearby school.
“He’s a child and I certainly believe that he had no malice, and I absolutely believe it was accidental,” Tomey said.
Neighbor: 'He's got a lot of problems'
Some neighbors, though, called the 10-year-old a troublesome child.
Linny Martin, who lives across the road, said she often caught him throwing rocks at her horses. When she yelled at him to stop, she said, he would run up the hill to his family’s trailer.
“He’s got a lot of problems,” Martin said.
The boy’s name is being withheld. Legal experts say arson charges against him are unlikely, given that he may have been too young to understand how much damage his match-play could cause.
The fire he admitted starting was one of more than 15 that roared across a wide swath of Southern California last week, blackening 809 square miles from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border and destroying more than 2,000 homes. Causes have ranged from arson to downed power lines to sparks set off by construction work.
The Santa Clarita fire, which started Oct. 21, was traced to an area just outside the boy’s hilltop trailer home. Neither the home nor the ranch was damaged.
The boy attended a nearby school. Tomey said she never saw him bring classmates home or play with any of the children on the ranch.
Authorities originally gave his age as 12, but a Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman said Thursday that was an error.
Attorneys mull filing charges
Prosecutors said they would review evidence submitted by investigators before deciding whether to bring charges. In the meantime, the boy and his mother have left the ranch, Tomey said.
“Obviously I feel terrible for the people who are affected by the fire, and I know the child felt terrible about it,” Tomey said.
The fire is believed to have started about 50 yards behind the family’s trailer, where a vast triangle of blackened brush dips into a shallow canyon before disappearing over a ridge.
Wilted cacti and charred, brittle bushes litter the landscape behind the aluminum mobile home, which is fronted by a white picket fence, neatly arranged potted plants and a vegetable garden.
The trailer, where Tomey said the family lived for less than a year, overlooks the ranch’s stables and riding course. The blaze was reported by an employee who called 911, Tomey said.
Some legal experts say serious criminal charges are unlikely.
To win an arson conviction, prosecutors would have to prove the boy intended to cause harm, which would be difficult given that they seem to have accepted his explanation that the fire was an accident, said Cyn Yamashiro, who directs Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy.
The prosecutor’s office was “not sure whether they’ll bring any charges, given that it was an accidental fire,” Los Angeles County fire Capt. Michael Brown said Wednesday. In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he did not think the child meant any harm.
Expert: Difficult to prosecute kid
The boy could be incarcerated for three years if found guilty of a lesser charge of unlawfully starting a fire. For that count, prosecutors would have to prove only that he understood the risks of his actions, but Yamashiro said winning a conviction on even that charge could be difficult.
“They’d have to prove that at 10 years old he really appreciated what the risk of playing with matches would have been,” Yamashiro said. “It’s difficult to prosecute him under that theory.”
If the boy is convicted, state law requires that the court seek monetary damages as restitution for the millions of dollars lost by victims and spent on firefighting, Yamashiro said. His parents, however, wouldn’t face criminal charges.
Carousel Ranch sits on a canyon road that winds between brush-covered hillsides studded sparsely with homes, many of them one-story clapboard houses with abandoned cars and weathered swingsets out front. Some residents still aren’t sure how to react to news that a 10-year-old playing with matches devastated the area.
“What do you do? It was a kid,” said Peter Kaulbach, 49, who lost his home on his family’s Santa Clarita pumpkin farm. “It’s almost like I don’t have time to think about that issue right now.”
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