MADERA COUNTY – After 17 days of testimony in the preliminary hearing of Kenneth Jackson and Allison Waterman on 31 counts of arson and conspiracy, the prosecution called its last witness on Wednesday, Oct. 23.
The Coarsegold couple has been in custody since their arrests on June 25 after dozens of suspicious fires in the Yosemite Lakes Park area. Waterman was released on bail, but was rearrested on June 29 and charged with additional counts.
The hearing, which started on Sept. 9, finally moved into the defense case on Wednesday afternoon with more Cal Fire personnel being called to the stand.
Jackson’s attorney Craig Collins called eight witnesses, including one Cal Fire Chief, three Captains and four Engineers, who were first-on-scene for several of the fires that are included in the charges, and served as the Incident Commanders.
Throughout the hearing, there have been questions from the defense as to why the reports of the Incident Commanders differed in some respects from those of the Prevention Investigators who are called in later. Collins asked the witnesses that question.
All testified that they have been trained in origin and cause of wildland fires, and that it is part of their duties to complete a preliminary report as to the origin and cause of the fires to which they responded.
The witnesses also stated that their primary job is suppression, and that they have neither the tools nor the expertise to do a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire. They do their best to protect the area where they determine the fire started, and defer to those with more training to complete the process.
“My primary job is to extinguish the fire,” Engineer Joe Quistorff told Senior Deputy District Attorney Sally Moreno. “Prevention’s primary job is to determine the origin and cause.”
The defense also recalled Battalion Chief Bernie Quinn to the stand, questioning him about others who may have been considered suspects in the investigation.
Quinn was shown a photograph of a juvenile who lives in the YLP area, who reportedly was telling friends that he was lighting fires.
“We received information that the juvenile had said something to the effect that even if he got caught, the fires would continue because his friends were lighting fires too,” said Quinn.
Quinn also testified that another juvenile, who lives on Revis Way, was suspected of lighting fires around his residence and was also investigated.
A neighbor called to report that on May 22, at about 7 p.m., he saw a juvenile who lives next door to him, using his garden hose to put out a fire. When the neighbor went outside and said he would call 911, the young man told him that he had already called.
When no fire engines showed up at his house, the neighbor decided something was odd and called to report the incident the next day.
Quinn said that this juvenile was also overheard on the school bus telling friends that he had started the fire. There was a lighter found among the debris of the fire, along with toys, boxes and a broom.
“Those are items we usually associate with kids playing with fire,” said Quinn, who said both juveniles were eliminated as suspects in the incidents near the Jackson/Waterman residence.
The defense questioned Quinn about other fires that were not part of the arson series log which investigators had prepared. The causes of several of those fires have been determined – one was a cutting torch, one was a ratcheted tie-down strap dragging on the pavement, and two were found to have been caused by discarded cigarettes, Quinn said.
Two fires, however, which were well south of the area shown on the map used to plot the locations, were of undetermined origin. The Harsh and Hensley fires were not listed in the indictment against Jackson and Waterman, and defense attorneys wanted to know why.
Quinn told the court that Jackson was out of town on the days of those fires, having driven a truck to Mariposa, hauling heavy equipment to the Carstens Fire. He said that was one of the reasons those two fires were removed from the log, along with the fact that they were both quite a bit south of the YLP area.
Defense attorneys questioned Quinn as to why those two fires should have been dismissed from their investigation, since their cause was undetermined and seemed to fit the same pattern as the others with which Jackson is being charged, leaving open the possibility that someone else was responsible.
The last witnesses for the defense were called by Greg Gross, Waterman’s attorney, and were the only ones to testify who were not wearing a Cal Fire uniform.
Michelle Chavez and Christina Sandwick both testified that they play on the same soccer team as Alice Waterman, and that she was playing soccer in Fresno on two of the nights that fires burned near her home in YLP.
“I saw her 30 minutes before the game on June 12,” said Chavez, who is the team manager, “so she was there from 7:45 until at least 10 p.m. ” Chavez said the same was true for Wednesday, May 22, the date of another fire with which Waterman has been charged.
Both women testified that they distinctly remember the June 12 match because there was a woman on the other team named Shelly, who “didn’t care for Alice and purposely tried to hurt her.”
A third witness, who actually played for that other team and said Waterman’s team was their opponent on that night, confirmed that the defendant played in that game, and was there for the entire evening.
“I remember that night because she was trying to cover me all evening,” said Kathy Ochoa. “Also, we interacted after the game.”
But when asked about the woman named Shelly, whom Waterman’s teammate said “tried to take Alice out,” Ochoa testified that Shelly doesn’t play on her team, but on a different team.
Deputy District Attorney Moreno then asked the judge for time to track down “Shelly” to see if she would corroborate or dispute the testimony.
Barring any unforeseen complications with the witnesses who place Waterman in Fresno on Wednesday soccer nights, closing arguments should be presented on Monday afternoon, Oct. 28, in Department 2 of Madera Superior Court.
Judge Dale Blea told the attorneys last week that he would rule from the bench at the conclusion of closing arguments, but has reconsidered due to the complex nature of the charges, and will schedule a date on Monday for handing down his decision.
Since this process has gone on for so long, many may think that this is the trial. It is not. This has been the preliminary hearing where the judge hears the prosecution’s evidence on the charges against the defendants.
The judge will decide whether he believes the prosecution has produced enough evidence to convince a jury that the defendants committed the crimes charged. He may throw out some or all of the charges. For those that meet the “probable cause” legal standard, the defendants will be “held to answer” and will stand trial.
Both Jackson and Waterman remain behind bars while awaiting the judge’s decision.