While the naming of the Tea Fire Ten-the group assumed by many to have started the Tea Fire 97 days earlier in the hills above Westmont College-came weeks too late for critics of the investigation, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney took the occasion on Tuesday to explain that the group’s actions did not assuredly cause the devastating fire
The District Attorney’s Office made a statement last week on its investigation into the start of the Tea Fire on November 13, explaining that more serious charges related to starting the blaze couldn’t be brought against the 10 because it could not meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Misdemeanor charges were filed against them in Santa Barbara Superior Court on Friday, alleging they trespassed and built a fire for which they lacked a permit.
Joshua Decker-Trinidad, his girlfriend Hope Dunlap, Casey Lamonte, Stephen Reid, Lauren Vazquez, Mohammed Alessam, Hashim Hassan, Natalie Maese, Fahad Al-Fadhel, and Carver McLellan all will be arraigned in Santa Barbara Superior Court on March 2. Nine of the 10 18- to 22-year-olds are Santa Barbara City College students. Alessam was the one student not enrolled at SBCC in fall 2008, while Hassan’s Facebook profile indicated he also was a 2007 graduate of UCSB. None of them could be reached for comment.
Though District Attorney Christie Stanley also said there was “no evidence that we could uncover” to suggest other fires were present that night, Assistant DA Eric Hansen elaborated that there are three theories of how the fire started, none of which accounted for the 12- to 14-hour gap between the time the students left the Tea House and when the Tea Fire sprang to life. He said investigators interviewed Tea House neighbors who reported seeing people acting suspiciously near the Tea House closer to the time the fire broke out. One neighbor reported seeing someone start a fire at 5:45 p.m., when the fire actually broke out. “She said she saw what she believed to be a truck with gas cans head up the hill,” Hansen recounted. While Hansen said the witness was far from the site when she observed this, she also had no history of unreliability. But no forensic evidence has been discovered indicating that gasoline helped ignite the blaze.
Hansen said that the 10 were cooperative, telling investigators that they went to the Tea House to enjoy the view but not to party. All said no drugs were present, though some acknowledged a bottle of rum was present and at least one individual had a couple of swigs. They built the fire using store-bought logs. The flames reportedly grew to as high as three feet. But the students insisted they took great pains to put the fire out before departing, stomping on it, dousing it with water, cola beverages, and even urinating on it.
The DA’s three scenarios for how the bonfire grew into the roaring conflagration that was the Tea Fire are: that embers from that fire laid dormant until being swept up by winds 14 hours later, that heat from the fire traveled underground through the roots of nearby plants, and that embers from the bonfire traveled to some nearby leaf piles and twigs and remained dormant until being blown airborne by the Sundowner’s strong 60- to 70-mile-per-hour winds later in the day. Whatever the case, Hansen concluded the evidence “was insufficient as measured against the reasonable doubt standard.”
Hansen stressed that the evidence unearthed by the Tea Fire investigation was extensively reviewed by six attorneys and investigators from the DA’s office before the decision was made to file trespassing charges. “Not one of those six thought we had the evidence to file arson charges,” Hansen said.
Hansen acknowledged that Sheriff Bill Brown brought more public pressure upon his office by his announcement that 10 college students were being considered as the ones who started the fire. This stirred public outcry that the individuals’ names should be released and allegations that political pressures were being improperly brought to bear to protect the guilty. “Sheriff Brown is an excellent sheriff and he does a terrific job. But did it make our job tougher? I think it did,” Hansen said. “People had it in their head they knew exactly what had happened.”
Critics of the investigation alleged it moved too slowly and wouldn’t hold accountable those responsible for the fire’s destruction. While expressing sympathy for the sense of loss, grief, and rage that accompanied the fire’s aftermath-which saw 230 homes destroyed, including the Mt. Calvary Monastery-Hansen said, “People need to ask what they expect of a local DA’s office. Our mission has been to evaluate the evidence in an objective manner. Once we do that, the charges we file are driven by the evidence and ethical considerations : When that process starts to be influenced by emotion, passion, and political considerations of any kind, that’s not the way to go.”