MADERA COUNTY – The trial of Kenneth Jackson and Allison Waterman on arson and conspiracy charges got underway today in Madera County Superior Court. Both have been behind bars awaiting trial for over six months.
Jackson and Waterman were arrested on June 25, 2013, after dozens of suspicious fires in the Yosemite Lakes Park (YLP) community of Coarsegold.
Jackson is charged with 31 counts of arson, 1 count of conspiracy, plus resisting arrest and assault on a police officer. Waterman faces 10 counts of arson and 1 count of conspiracy.
Finding a jury of 12, plus 8 alternates, who would not suffer hardship due to the length of the trial was a daunting process which began in mid-December. The final jury panel was seated last week.
Judge Dale Blea started today by first instructing the jury on how the trial would proceed and what constitutes evidence, noting that the fact that the couple has been arrested and charges have been filed is not evidence of their guilt.
After pre-trial jury instructions and admonitions, Deputy District Attorney John Thackary presented the prosecution’s opening statement.
He told the jury that between May 5 and May 24, there were 7 fires in the area, burning over 100 acres and destroying one home. At that point, he said, Cal Fire Chief Bernie Quinn contacted Sacramento Headquarters to request additional resources, including the installation of video cameras throughout the YLP area.
Between June 1 and June 9, there were 7 more fires, said Thackary, prompting Quinn to request even more resources, this time involving covert surveillance by investigators. From June 10 to June 25, another 17 fires of suspicious origin burned in the YLP area, and on the evening of June 25, as the last of 10 fires near the defendant’s home was being suppressed by firefighters, Cal Fire law enforcement went to arrest Jackson.
Thackary told the jury that when officers approached Jackson, and repeatedly instructed him to get on the ground, Jackson refused to comply, pushed one of the officers and walked away. It took several officers to restrain him, and he was charged with resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.
Thackary stated that the investigation included video and live surveillance, fire scene analysis, interviews with witnesses, and GPS tracker data and analysis. Based on the evidence and the background and experience of many trained investigators, Jackson and Waterman were identified as the persons responsible for the 31 fires classified as arson, he said.
Craig Collins, attorney for Jackson, reserved his opening statement for the beginning of the defense case.
Greg Gross, Waterman’s attorney, started by telling the jury that during the summer of 2013, Kenneth Jackson drove a pickup with “a big, obnoxious, annoyingly loud exhaust system,” and that no one ever reported to investigators that they had heard this loud truck at or near the scene of any fire.
He also stated that even with all the surveillance, both along the roads of YLP and around the defendant’s home, no one had ever seen either Jackson or Waterman light a fire.
Gross questioned the validity of the process by which investigators arrived at the conclusion that any of these fires was arson. He told the jury that the evidence would show that reports had been altered and opinions changed once the reports were filed with supervisors.
He said they would hear about discrepancies in the description of Waterman as observed by one of the covert surveillance officers, and that his client was playing soccer in Fresno on the night one of the fires started, and could not possibly be responsible, though she has been charged with setting it.
This trial will follow a different format than most, due to the number of charges and the complexity and technical nature of the evidence. Instead of the prosecution presenting their entire case, followed by the defense doing likewise, each fire will be handled one at a time, creating a kind of mini-trial for each count.
Witness testimony began after the noon break, with Cal Fire investigators laying out the process by which they determine the cause of a fire.
The preliminary hearing lasted eight weeks, and the trial is expected to take anywhere from three to six months.
Click here for a list of articles on the YLP Arson Case.