MADERA COUNTY – The preliminary hearing for Kenneth Jackson and Allison Waterman on charges of arson and conspiracy, which has continued in fits and starts in Madera Superior Court, finally got some traction today.
With jury trials that had been scheduled for the next two weeks in Department 2 having been settled outside of court, the arson hearing will now proceed throughout the rest of this week and into next week, after the Monday holiday.
The prosecution has several more witnesses scheduled, and the defense will be calling at least three of their own. Both sides hope to finish sometime next week.
Jackson and Waterman were arrested on June 25 after weeks of suspicious fires in and around the Yosemite Lakes Park area. Both waived their rights to a timely hearing back on July 2, and both still sit in jail as their hearing has proceeded, just a few hours a week, as time has become available on the court calendar.
The first day of their hearing got underway on Sept. 9, and Tuesday, Oct. 8, was the ninth day in the piecemeal process.
Tim McCann and Mark Pimentel, both Cal Fire investigators, have been on the stand from the beginning as attorneys work their way through the more than two dozen counts in detail.
Today, Cal Fire Engineer Tim McCann continued his testimony about the fires he investigated between May 11 and June 25, when the suspects were taken into custody.
Defense attorneys Craig Collins, representing Jackson, and Greg Gross, Waterman’s lawyer, have focused in on the number of mistakes found in the huge stack of binders that contain the reports and evidence presented by the prosecution.
McCann testified that investigating that many fires in such a short period of time led to mistakes being made. But he insisted that they were largely grammatical errors or mistakes in transcribing data from one form to another, and that neither he nor his supervisors changed the facts of any investigation.
“I would leave one fire, and not even get back to Mariposa, when another call would come in,” he said, noting the 14 fires he investigated in a 6-week period. There were several days in June where there were multiple fires over subsequent days.
There has also been much confusion over dates and times and exactly which fire was being discussed, since several were given the same name at the time of dispatch.
Citing mistakes and changes made to the reports filed by McCann and Pimentel, the defense attacked the process by which investigators arrived at their conclusions that these fires were arson, and questioned whether they had been pressured by their superiors to change their opinions.
On one specific fire on John Muir Drive, McCann had determined that the cause of the fire was a catalytic converter, and that information was disseminated to the public. However, after further examination of the remnant and discussion with other investigators, McCann changed his opinion about the cause.
“I collected the piece and packaged and labeled it, and then was called to another fire,” said McCann. He stated that when he and other investigators took a closer look at a later time, the presence of debris in the honeycomb of the catalytic converter changed his opinion that it had started the fire.
“The remnant was located in the origin area of the fire, but was not the thing that started it,” he said. “Pieces of a catalytic converter come out at about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. There would be no grass or debris intact.”
“So your expertise is only as good as what your fellow investigators see,” said defense attorney Collins, implying that others had swayed his opinion and pressured him to change his findings. McCann denied that had ever happened.
Collins also questioned him about a fire on Revis Drive where the initial conclusion was that it was started by a metal arrow striking a rock. After talking to the homeowner and learning that he had not been target practicing for several months, and noting that the arrows were dirty and weathered, McCann reassessed his opinion and determined that it was intentionally set.
Greg Gross, Waterman’s attorney, asked McCann if people would be sent a bill for suppression costs if they start a fire. When McCann said that may very well happen, Gross asked him whether a homeowner might be tempted to lie in order to avoid that outcome.
“People do sometimes lie about these things, right?” asked Gross. McCann agreed that it would indeed be a possibility, but said he didn’t think that happened in this case.
McCann also testified that no one he had talked to during his investigations had seen anyone actually light a fire. As he had explained previously, in any fire investigation, there are 12 things that need to be excluded – lightning, spontaneous combustion, campfire, smoking, debris burning, vehicles, equipment use, fireworks, playing with fire, power lines, glass refractions and railroads. When all of those possibilities are eliminated, that leaves only an intentionally set fire – arson.
Gross questioned how, just because the twelve possible causes of fire have been excluded, one could surmise that it was arson. To which McCann replied, “Fires don’t just start by themselves.”
The next witness for the prosecution was Cal Fire Captain Darrin McCully, who investigated two fires that burned next to each other at the same time just off East Revis Circle on May 22. The “Revis #2 Fire” burned .38 acres, and about 20 feet away, another blaze named the “Smaller Fire” consumed .19 acres.
McCully stated his opinion that they both started at the same time and were both intentionally set. He also noted that the fires were about 50 yards behind the defendants’ house, and located in an area where someone would have had to walk in.
He testified that he had excluded all other possible causes, which leaves only an intentionally set fire.
Collins asked him if he had found an ignition source – lighter, matches, etc – in the fire’s area of origin, and McCully said he had not. He was then asked if he had found any evidence at all of an ignition source, to which he responded, “Only the fire.”
The testimony ended at 4:30 p.m., and is scheduled to resume in Department 2 at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 9. Cal Fire Captain William Cacho will be the next witness for the prosecution.
Jackson and Waterman remain jailed on $500,000 and $1,000,000 bonds respectively.