2 men accused of starting 2007 Malibu wildfire expected to plead

VAN NUYS — Facing the two men on trial for starting a Malibu wildfire three years ago, a former resident of a Malibu neighborhood told a judge through today that she returned home Thanksgiving weekend to find her house destroyed by the blaze.

"I literally came home to a driveway,'' Carri Karuhn, 42, said. "My house was wiped off the map. Everything was melted or crushed.''

The emotional testimony came during a hearing in which defendants Brian Alan Anderson, 24, and William Thomas Coppock, 25, had been expected to enter guilty pleas to felony charges of starting the 2007 wildfire. Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Susan M. Speer instead set another hearing for June 2.

Karuhn said her life was changed forever on Nov. 24, 2007, when what became known as the Corral Fire swept through the area.

As for her pets, Karuhn addressed the men charged with causing the fire:
"My animals were my children -- and you took that away from me,'' Karuhn told Anderson and Coppock.

Two other people charged with starting the blaze — Eric Matthew Ullman, 20; and Dean Allen Lavorante, 21 — will likely enter guilty pleas after Anderson and Coppock are sentenced, Deputy District Attorney Francis Young said.

Another man, Brian David Franks, 29, was sentenced in February 2009 to five years probation and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service for his role in the Nov. 24, 2007, blaze.

Authorities allege the men went to a cave and notorious party spot on state park land overlooking Malibu to drink alcohol with girls and have a campfire at a time when the area was under a wildfire warning because of high winds and low humidity.

The campfire was blamed for sparking the wildfire that destroyed 53 homes, severely damaged 23 others in the Malibu area and injured six firefighters.

Anderson and Coppock face the most serious charges — recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury and recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure — because their conduct was the most "egregious,'' Young said outside court today.

Also testifying today was Charlotte Ward and her husband Fred, who were aged 70 and 72, respectively, at the time of the fire.

The woman described "incalculable'' pain and suffering, along with financial loss.

"We are still breathing soot,'' she said after recalling how a neighbor's house exploded into a "fireball.''

Others told of their difficulty over the past 2 1/2 years in wrangling with insurance companies for settlements.

Most said they will never recover financially, and many called for a stiff prison term for Anderson and Coppock.

"They're very fortunate they're not facing murder charges,'' Karuhn said after the hearing.

Speer expressed sympathy with the victims, telling them she "can't imagine the pain you've suffered ... I can only imagine the anger and sadness.''

"If this happened to me, there's no amount of punishment'' that would be satisfactory, the judge said, adding that the case was among the most difficult she has had to decide in her entire career.