Forty acres of land owned by accused arsonist Leonard Ross were auctioned off to defray the costs of the 1990 Painted Cave fire that destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed one woman. The county successfully sued Ross, 52, in civil court for starting the fire in furtherance of a grudge match with his downwind neighbor, whose home was the first to burn. Land developer Nick Narang — one of only three bidders at the sheriff’s auction — paid $380,000 for the rustic property located off Old San Marcos Pass and accessible by a 3.5-mile dirt road. Except for $50,000 Ross is permitted to keep due to a homestead exemption, the money will go to Santa Barbara County to help pay the $2.75 million in damages the court awarded the county in 2000.
Ross — a Cabrillo Beach Arts and Crafts Show artisan who makes solar-powered flapping butterflies — denies setting the fire, and was never prosecuted because the District Attorney could not meet the higher standard of proof required in criminal cases. The main evidence against Ross in the civil case was the testimony of two of his ex-girlfriends — one who stated he confessed to her five years after the fact, and another who claimed Ross told her he made the down payment on the 40 acres by setting fire to his Santa Barbara motorcycle-parts shop in 1978. Ross has filed a federal lawsuit alleging violation of his civil rights.