Two teens have been charged with felony arson and assault after an incident last spring that left their 14-year-old friend with horrific injuries. Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley announced the charges at a press conference Monday, but explained if the teens, also both 14 years old, meet a number of terms and conditions laid out in a pre-plea diversion agreement, the charges will be dismissed.
Just after noon on Saturday, March 1, paramedics rushed junior high school student Jacob Keefer to Cottage Hospital with severe burns to his face, chest, and hands. He was admitted in critical condition and has since endured months of surgeries and skin grafts. Dudley said Keefer, whom she described as “a beautiful and extraordinary young man,” is still in a lot of pain but receiving the best possible care. Family friends have stated in online messages that Keefer is struggling with depression about his appearance.
Because the case involves juveniles, many details about the incident are being withheld, Dudley said. In the days after Keefer was burned, however, some of his classmates claimed he and the other two teens were taking part in what’s known as the “Fire Challenge.” Participates of the dare game popularized by social media douse themselves in lighter fluid, rubbing alcohol, or other accelerant and light themselves on fire before jumping into a pool or shower to extinguish the flames.
Dudley and other officials would not confirm that the three teens were taking part in the Fire Challenge. They said only the boys used poor judgment as they were “playing with fire” and, in the words of Tara Haaland-Ford, defense attorney for one of the unnamed teens, “Three friends hanging out together made split second decisions that have changed them all forever.”
Neither of the defendants were injured that day, Haaland-Ford said, and neither had prior criminal records. But both are devastated by what happened, she went on. “Their emotions are still very raw. Words can’t quantify what they’ve gone through.” Haaland-Ford said her client didn’t leave his house for months after the incident.
In order for their charges to be dismissed, the two boys must do the following by this February: volunteer for 10 days at a camp for kids with cancer, complete 60 days of community service, not use social media, meet with Keefer’s mother (who was present during Monday’s press conference but chose not to speak), view photos of Keefer’s injuries and hear about his recovery, write letters to Keefer and his mother, and complete three months of counseling. Authorities initially wanted the teens to spend their 10 volunteer days at a burn rehab center, but could not find a facility in California that would accept juvenile workers.
“It is my hope that our community learns from this tragedy and that no other families have to suffer all of the catastrophic, lifelong consequences brought about by these crimes,” Dudley said.