SANTA ANA (CNS) - A Trabuco Canyon man threatened to "murder" his neighbor just hours before setting fire to the man's cabin, which led to the massive 2018 Holy Fire, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday, while the defendant's attorney said investigators fouled up their probe in a "rush to judgment."
Forrest Gordon Clark, 56, is charged with aggravated arson of five or more inhabited structures, arson of an inhabited structure, arson of a structure or forest and criminal threats, all felonies. Clark also faces sentencing enhancements for arson of multiple structures.
He is accused of setting fire to the cabin of next-door neighbor Frank Romero on Aug. 6, 2018. Clark lived in Cabin 14 and Romero lived in Cabin 15, which were the closest residences in Trabuco Canyon, just 30 to 40 feet apart, Deputy District Attorney Dominic Bello said.
Romero moved in prior to Clark and was "friendly and welcoming to the defendant," Bello said. But over the years, "the relationship changed after harassment from the defendant," the prosecutor alleged.
Bello said there were instances of "vandalism, theft and trespassing" on Romero's property. Clark allegedly threatened Romero, who "thought he was going to die and defendant would kill him," Bello said.
The fire started several hours after the defendant threatened to murder Romero, Bello said, adding that Clark had flammable materials in his cabin.
In Clark's preliminary hearing before trial, an Orange County Fire Authority captain testified that Romero used his phone to record four minutes of Clark threatening to kill him hours before the blaze was set.
Clark allegedly said, "Mark my words, you're going to die at 12:37," OCFA Capt. William Lackey testified.
Clark also allegedly said, "I clap my hands and people die," and, "I can wipe out whole families," Lackey testified.
Experts suspect the blaze started between 12:44 p.m. and 1 p.m., Lackey said. Bello said firefighters responded to the blaze at about 1:45 p.m.
U.S. Forest Service investigator Albert Banh began probing what caused the blaze the day it started, Bello said.
"He also spoke to the defendant that day," Bello said, adding Banh returned the next day because the sun had set. He was a wildfire expert so he asked for more help from other experts who specialized in structure fires, Bello said.
The investigators concluded the blaze "began in or around Cabin 15," Bello said.
The Holy Fire blackened 23,000 acres and destroyed 18 structures. It was not fully contained until Sept. 13.
Jason Phlaum of the Alternate Defender's Office denied that his client ignited the blaze.
"He didn't cause this fire, he didn't set this fire, he didn't commit arson," Phlaum said. "There was a rush to judgment ... and that mistake influenced the entire investigation of this fire."
The attorney said the flawed probe was "not done according to the basic principles of fire science." He said other causes were either not explored or done only "half-heartedly" so.
"This should have been labeled an undetermined fire," Phlaum said. "The cause of this fire will be forever undetermined."
Trabuco Canyon "is sort of a place apart in Orange County," Phlaum said. "People go there to get away."
Clark told Banh at one point that he resided there "because he had trouble being around other people," Phlaum said.
The area represents a significant fire danger, Phlaum said. As such it is "highly regulated," and residents must clear brush regularly, he added.