California Fire Authority Wants to Bill Missing Teen for Search and Rescue Costs

PHOTO: Nicholas Cendoya in court
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Correction: The initial version of this story inaccurately stated that Farrah Emami is the spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff's office and misattributed several quotes to her that were in fact statements made by Gail Krause, who is the spokesperson for the sheriff's office. Ms. Emami is a spokesperson for the Orange County District Attorney's office and made no statements to ABC News about the cost of the search and rescue or the potential to seek restitution.

County fire authorities want a Costa Mesa, Calif., teenager to pay the cost of its search and rescue efforts to find him when he went missing while hiking with a friend in the woods on March 31.

On Wednesday the Orange County Fire Authority filed a briefing in Orange County Superior Court seeking $55,000 in restitution fees from Nicolas Cendoya, 19. In the briefing the Fire Authority asks that Cendoya pay restitution in addition to the penalty he could incur for possession of a controlled substance, according to court records.

Cendoya was charged last month with one felony count of unlawful possession of methamphetamine after officers from the Orange County Sheriff's Department found .5 grams of methamphetamine in Cendoya's car in the course of the search and rescue effort, according to a police complaint obtained by ABC News.

Read about Nicolas Cendoya's rescue and drug possession charge.

Cendoya's disappearance near Trabuco Canyon sparked a four-day search and rescue effort for him and his companion, Kyndall Jack, 18, who was not charged with anything, that involved multiple emergency agencies and amounted to a total cost of $160,000, according to Kris Concepcion, a division chief in the Fire Authority. The Fire Authority's costs came to $55,000.

Cendoya was found on April 3, and Jack on April 4.

Cendoya admitted he'd taken methamphetamine before and during the hike, Concepcion told ABC News.

"We're making the argument that if it were not for the ingesting of drugs and becoming disoriented, Cendoya would not have been lost, and search and rescue would not have been necessary," Concepcion said.

"A lot of people feel that ingestion of drugs is a victimless crime, but it truly is not. In this case, Cendoya's criminal activity resulted in a large cost to the Orange County taxpayers. It also caused two injuries, one to a deputy and one to a volunteer," Concepcion said.

"The search cost the fire authority $55,000. It covers the cost of search and rescue efforts over the course of four days, which includes the use of our helicopter and 30 crew members who searched on foot," Concepcion explained.

The briefing cites an amendment to the California constitution called Marcy's Law, which allows for restitution to victims of criminal activity.

"We, and the taxpayers, are the real victims of Mr. Cendoya's criminal activity," Concepcion said.

Other agencies that participated in the search and rescue have chosen not to seek restitution.

"We've never done something like that before and we're not planning to. Our commitment is to public safety," Gail Krause of the Orange County Sheriff's Department told ABC News. "We just answer the call."

The search and rescue cost the Sheriff's Department $32,000, said Krause.

But the Orange County Fire Authority has found support elsewhere.

On May 31, the Orange County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a legislative proposal to allow the County to recover the cost of search and rescue operations, according to a statement given to ABC News by a Board of Supervisors spokesperson.

"Individuals who recklessly put themselves and others in danger should pay the cost for such rescues. Innocent taxpayers should not bear the burden of these exorbitant costs," Town Supervisor Todd Spitzer said in the statement.

Under current state and county law, Orange County cannot receive restitution for search and rescue operations.

The Orange County Fire Authority is still awaiting the ruling on its briefing.

"I won't speculate on the case, but we're hopeful. We're waiting to see what happens," Concepcion said.

Efforts to reach Cendoya were not successful, as his phone, as well as his mother's, had been disconnected. Two phone messages were left for Cendoya's attorney regarding the restitution and the criminal charge, but the calls were not immediately returned.

Read about rescue of hiker who dropped 100 feet in waterfall.

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