Arson Charges Considered for Calif. Boy

He told police he was playing with matches when a wildfire began.

ByABC News via via logo
February 18, 2009, 6:12 PM

Nov. 1, 2007 — -- Los Angeles County prosecutors have still not decided whether to prosecute a boy for starting one of the wildfires that swept across Southern California last month.

The boy admitted to California authorities that he was playing with matches when he accidentally started a fire that burned 38,000 acres, destroyed 21 homes and forced 15,000 people to evacuate the area.

Prosecutors continue to review evidence while they consider whether a boy's playing with matches deserves criminal arson charges, which could be pursued against him or his parents. That decision will depend largely on whether evidence shows the boy intended to start the fire or was just playing around.

Neighbors in the area, some of whom lost their homes in the blaze or were forced to evacuate, were conflicted.

"The fact my kids don't have a home to live in right now makes me want that kid to see what he's done," neighbor John Bratlein told "Good Morning America."

But neighbor Colin Truax could also see the other side of the coin. "I was mad at first, then I realized, he's 10," Truax said. "I used to do a lot of dumb stuff when I was 10."

A Los Angeles County sheriff's official says the boy is 12 years old. Other media outlets have reported that he is 10, citing other sources.

As for charges against the parents, Royal Oakes, ABC News' legal analyst, says it would be a difficult case for prosecutors to pursue.

"It's so tough to drag parents in and impose any kind of liability on them," Oakes told "Gold Morning America." "You have to really, really establish that they knew this crime was being planned, that they did nothing about it."

The boy, whose name has not been released, told fire investigators that he was playing with matches on the property of his family's ranch. Though the property is in a remote location, tinderbox conditions and stiff winds — at times reaching 70 mph — moved the fire into more populated areas where destruction could not be avoided.

Fire investigators traced the origin of the fire, which began Oct. 21, to the boy's ranch, pinpointing the property as the trigger point. A boy who lives at the ranch was questioned, police say, and confessed to the crime.

Meanwhile, authorities continue to investigate what started more than 15 other wildfires last month. Down power lines, arson and construction work have already been fingered as the cause of five fires that combined to destroy 2,100 homes and blacken 809 square miles in the last 10 days. The damage is expected to top $1.5 billion.

Wednesday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed state officials to prepare for more fires as moderate Santa Ana winds were forecast for later in the week. Crews, including National Guard units, will be actively combating flare-ups.

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