Courts hear account of 14-year-old girl who started North County fires

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – The account given by a girl accused of starting a major North County wildfire last May conflicted with that of her sister when they were first questioned, a San Diego County sheriff’s arson investigator testified Friday.

The girl, who was 13 at the time, faces five counts of arson in a non-jury trial before Superior Court Judge Howard Shore.

The defendant, whose name is withheld because she is a minor, is accused of starting fires in the backyard of her San Marcos home last May 13 and May 14. The second blaze sparked the larger Cocos Fire, which blackened nearly 2,000 acres and destroyed three dozen homes.

Detective Arnold Van Lingen said he talked to the girls and their mother at an evacuation center at Mission Hills High School three days after the Cocos Fire started.

The defendant told him she was in the garage when she heard a “pop” from the neighbor’s backyard, went outside and saw smoke, and went to tell her family. She said that on the larger fire the next day, she was in her bedroom and her brother noticed the smoke, according to the detective.

Van Lingen said the girl’s sister “told me that (the defendant) barged into her room giggling that there was a fire” on both days. He said he noticed the discrepancy and told their mother to “keep an eye” on the defendant. It was quickly apparent that the fires were caused by people because there were no signs of natural or accidental causes at the ignition point, the investigator testified.

The May 13 fire burned a fallen branch, but nothing around it.

“I thought it was very odd and I immediately thought somebody had set fire to that branch,” Van Lingen said.

He said the May 14 blaze, which became the destructive Cocos Fire, had a tell-tale V-shape in which flames fanned out while headed up a hillside. Because the starting point was near a pile of large rocks in a shady area, he looked — but did not find — evidence that someone had sparked the flames by smoking.

In her opening statement on Monday, Deputy District Attorney Shawnalyse Ochoa told the judge that the accused set the fires with a lighter.

Two Cal Fire investigators determined that an ember from the fire behind the girl’s home traveled .44 of a mile to spark the Cocos fire, according to the prosecutor.

Ochoa alleged the teenager intentionally, willfully and maliciously set both fires behind her home, and urged the judge to find her guilty.

Defense attorney Ryan McGlinn said his expert would dispute the prosecution theory that an ember traveled almost a half-mile to ignite the Cocos blaze.

“We’re talking a phantom ember,” McGlinn told the judge.

The Cocos blaze was one of more than a dozen brushfires that erupted in hot, dry and windy conditions last spring. Officials set the cost of extinguishing the fires at nearly $28 million.

Categories: KUSI