Two of the so-called Tea Fire Ten pleaded on Tuesday no contest to charges of trespassing, despite pleas from the mother of burn victim Carla Hoffman to treat the entire group as “criminally negligent.” In pleading to the trespassing charge, Hashim Hassan and Mohammed Alessam - neither of whom were in court Tuesday - had additional charges of having a fire without a permit dismissed. The two will each pay $550 in fines and must complete 75 hours of community service.
The protestations of Carla Hoffman’s mother, Blanca Benedict, echoed sentiments of many in the community who feel Hassan, Alessam, and eight other people are the ones responsible for starting the Tea Fire - and, by extension, the severe burns suffered by Lance and Carla Hoffman as the two tried to escape the blaze - because they had a campfire near the fire’s point of origin on November 13. The Tea Fire began burning the following day.
Alessam, 28, is Hassan’s uncle and lives in Kuwait. He was visiting Hassan, a 19-year-old going to school in the area, at the time the Tea Fire started. According to their attorney, Adam Pearlman, Alessam is a larger man, and took much more time to hike up to the garden, and the two weren’t even there when the fire was lit. “My clients wanted to get this past them, do their community service, and not have this hanging over their head,” explained Pearlman, adding that their thoughts and prayers go out to the victims from the fire.
The other eight will return to court May 5. None were present in Judge Clifford Anderson’s court but were instead represented by their attorneys. Though pages and pages of documents relating to the Tea Fire investigation still must be sifted through, more pleas are expected down the line.
Sheriff Bill Brown said an anonymous tip led investigators to suspect the group as being the parties responsible for the blaze, which destroyed 230 homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara. But after a months-long investigation by several agencies, the District Attorney’s Office decided it could only charge the group with the misdemeanor crimes, unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the campfire they had started - and, according to group members, extinguished - more than 12 hours earlier had led to the Tea Fire. One such piece of evidence, Pearlman said, was a video of the area by investigators which appeared to show unburned brush and trees closest to where the campfire had been; they were still green.
The Hoffmans were the only two people with major injuries resulting from the Tea Fire. They were engulfed by the fast-moving flames while running to their car. Benedict gave an impassioned plea, calling the defendants’ conduct criminal, and expressing disappointment in the District Attorney’s Office. “It is beyond me why the District Attorney refuses to prosecute criminals or this criminal conduct in our community,” she told the court through tears. Her daughter, she told the court, sometimes wakes up at night thinking she still has to run from flames.
After the court hearing, Benedict indicated her daughter and son-in-law were “doing as well as can be expected.” The doctor recently gave news that the fourth month can be the most difficult for burn victims. The young married couple are both still receiving intensive, acute care and rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery could await them down the road. They are “blown away” by the support from the community, she said.
But their mother still plans on being in court every time she has to show the impact the Tea Fire has had on the family. “If I have to read this [statement] one thousand times, I will,” Benedict said.
Civil attorney Barry Cappello attended court with Benedict on Tuesday, and is representing the Hoffmans. He indicated his office is investigating the circumstances surrounding the fire, but no plans had yet been made to file a civil suit. “We’re going to help them try to find those responsible for their injuries,” Cappello said. Dugan Kelley, an attorney with Cappello, said, “Somebody’s got to [investigate]. The District Attorney didn’t do it.”