Federal prosecutors have filed felony fire-setting charges against three men in connection with last week's Colby Fire above Glendora — charges that could bring prison terms of up to five years if convicted.
Jonathan Carl Jarrell, 24, of Irwindale, Steven Robert Aguirre, 21, of Los Angeles and Clifford Eugene Henry Jr., 22, of Glendora were charged Tuesday. An affidavit (embedded below) filed in support of the charges contained many details about the fire and its start.
The Colby Fire broke out before dawn on Jan. 16. Glendora Police said the three men had spent the night in the foothills above Glendora. As the night grew cold, they allegedly threw paper into their campfire.
Although they reportedly tried to stomp out the growing fire, the embers spread into a 2,000-acre blaze that destroyed five homes and damaged 17 others, the affidavit alleges.
Jarrell, whose arrest report lists him as disabled, was picked up by a U.S. Forest Service employee about 8:30 Thursday morning at the Glendora Mountain Road gate at the entrance to the Angeles National Forest.
The other two men were seen walking out of the hilly area at Sierra Madre and Palm Drive shortly before 7 a.m. They had backpacks, muddy shoes and smelled of smoke, according to the affidavit. They claimed to have been camping and woke up to the fire, denying they set it, according to the affidavit filed with the federal charges.
The three men, after their initial denials, eventually told police their early morning campfire got out of control. According to the affidavit, they started another fire the night before, but managed to put it out.
Police have said they consider the fire to have been accidental. Still, accidental fires can carry heavy criminal penalties and, if convicted, the men could be ordered to pay restitution.
"It flies in the face of common sense" to have lit a campfire in that dry, windy area of the mountains, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns, whose environmental crimes section of the federal prosecutor office will be trying the three men.
Federal prosecutors years ago convicted Stephen Emory Butcher, a transient whose Piru Canyon campfire got out of control. He was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for setting the 2006 Day Fire in the Los Padres National Forest. It took several months to extinguish and cost $100 million. He was also convicted at the same trial of starting another fire in 2002.
Relatively few of Southern California's wildfires result in criminal prosecutions, mostly because it's difficult to find the people who set fires. The District Attorney's office in Los Angeles found just three prosecutions of setting wildfires, going back to 2003.
The penalties are far harsher when fires are intentionally set.
In separate fatal Inland Empire arson cases involving the 2003 Old Fire and the 2006 Esperanza Fire, the fire-setters were convicted and sentenced to death. Each of those fires took five lives.
The affidavit below contains partial transcripts of police interviews withe suspects and more details.