While fire officials continue to investigate the cause of the Jesusita Fire, the latest blaze to burn dozens of area homes, all the so-called Tea Fire Ten – the group alleged to have started last November’s Tea Fire – have pleaded.
Nine of the defendants – Joshua Decker-Trinidad, Hope Dunlap, Casey Lamonte, Stephen Reid, Lauren Vazquez, Mohammed Alessam, Hashim Hassan, Natalie Maese, Fahad Al-Fadhel, and Carver McLellan – were 18- to 22-year-olds and Santa Barbara City College students at the time of the fire, which damaged or destroyed more than 200 homes. Hassan, along with his 28-year-old uncle, Mohammed Alessam, entered pleas in early April.
The other eight pleaded no contest to a trespassing charge and, as part of a plea deal, prosecutor Elizabeth O’Brien dropped a charge of having a fire without a permit. In March, after months of speculation and questioning, the District Attorney’s Office said they would be unable prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a bonfire the group had at the Tea Garden in the Montecito foothills led to the start of the Tea Fire. The group had a campfire the night of November 12, at least 12 hours prior to the start of the Tea Fire nearby the next afternoon, but group members said they had put it out.
All the defendants – none of whom appeared in court – have to pay $500 in fines and complete 75 hours of community service, except Decker-Trinidad, who will serve 61 days in jail in lieu of community service, a move that allows him to avoid probation.
A group of area residents who lost their homes as a result of the Tea Fire showed up at court Thursday hoping to speak, but were denied by Judge Clifford Anderson after defense attorneys objected. The judge decided not to allow the people to speak after some defense attorneys threatened to not participate in the plea bargain if he allowed it. The people who wished to speak didn’t meet the victim standard, some defense attorneys argued.
Outside the courtroom, however, the group shared their feelings, calling the defendants “reckless,” “self-centered,” and “gutless.” They explained they weren’t looking to throw the young adults behind bars, but rather just wanted to hear the group take responsibility for their actions.