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Investigators Show Fire Patterns In Arson Hearing

MADERA COUNTY – Kenneth Jackson and Allison Waterman were back in Madera Superior Court today for Day 16 of testimony in their preliminary hearing on arson and conspiracy charges.

The Coarsegold couple was arrested on June 25 after a rash of suspicious fires in the Yosemite Lakes Park area, and with the challenging court calendar early on, the hearing has now stretched into its seventh week.

As the prosecution continued its case, Cal Fire Chief Matthew Gilbert, who was the Incident Commander in the early days of the investigation, took the stand again, this time to answer questions about the pattern of fires in the series of 31 that his team was investigating.

Gilbert told the court that he began his part of the investigation on June 10 by developing an arson series log to track all the fires. They were assigned numbers, their locations were mapped, and it was noted who investigated each fire and what the cause was determined to be.

A day/time matrix was also created, said Gilbert, to allow them to determine which days of the week had more fire activity, along with the time of day.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Sally Moreno asked Gilbert how they decided which fires to include in the log, and he stated that initially, all fires were included.

He testified that during the investigation, they reevaluated the fires on the log, excluding those that were known to have a cause other than arson.

“It was not excluded if the data suggested it was part of the series we were investigating,” said Gilbert, who stated that as of June 10, there were 14 fires on the log.

Gilbert told the court that some fires were removed over the course of the investigation. He said that at least one was located near a residence “where juveniles lived,” and after being investigated, was removed from the log.

Gilbert said that plotting the fires on a map helped them to focus on where to establish surveillance video, and showed where there were clusters and linear patterns. He indicated what he said were several linear patterns on the map, including a string of five fires along Highway 41 between YLP and Oakhurst, six along Road 400, and three on Road 415.

He also indicated a cluster of fires near Road 400 and Yosemite Springs Parkway, two on John Muir Drive, and two at the entrance to YLP just off Highway 41. But the one he found most significant was a large cluster near the Jackson/Waterman residence on East Revis Circle. There were 10 fires in that small area.

Gilbert said that the time of day they occurred was also significant. All the fires happened between 4 and 9 p.m., with 9 of the 10 occurring between 6 and 9 p.m., he said. That led him to believe that these fires were started by a different person than the fires that created the linear pattern along the roads surrounding YLP.

“The 21 other fires were adjacent to well-traveled roadways,” said Gilbert. “That suggests that, based on the large geographical area, a vehicle had to be used. The fires around the residence were more than 50 yards from a road.”

When Gilbert suggested that those evening fires near the suspects’ home could have been started by someone walking, the defense objected, and the judge sustained that objection.

Investigators also found it significant that no incendiary devices were found in any of the fires near the home, while five cigarette butts and a firework were found in six of the fires that burned near outlying roads.

Most significant to Gilbert was the fact that after the surveillance team was discovered by Waterman at the house next door on June 14, there were no more fires near her home until the night of the arrest on June 25.

There has been testimony that she and one of the undercover officers, Dave LaClair, got into a loud verbal altercation just after LaClair observed an unidentified person walk up the driveway of the vacant house he was watching. He spotted a fire just below his location a few minutes after the person left, and came down from his hiding spot to investigate the fire, whereupon Waterman showed up and chased him around the area, yelling and asking him if he was doing surveillance.

“There was a break in the fire activity after Waterman and LaClair had an altercation,” said Gilbert. “She became aware of the surveillance, and there was a subsequent lack of fire activity following that incident.”

Gilbert also said he sees significance in the fact that, on the night of the arrests, Waterman seemed unconcerned as she walked up the driveway of the house next door, watching a large column of smoke near her home.

“She walked away from her house in a nonchalant manner from a fire that was burning on her property,” he said.

When Moreno asked the witness if there was anything else they had failed to discuss concerning the series of fires, he said, “There have only been two fires in the area since June 25.”

On cross-examination, Jackson’s defense attorney Craig Collins wanted to know why Gilbert had excluded two of the fires on the log.

“They were located to the south of this series of fires, and based on location and information as to where Jackson was working, we eliminated those fires,” said Gilbert.

“So the foundation of your analysis is that Mr. Jackson or Ms. Waterman have to have started a fire?” asked Collins. “What about the Harsh fire. Other than the fact that my client was working, what similarities were there to the other 31 fires that are the subject of this investigation?”

Gilbert stated that it was a wildland fire, it occurred during the one o’clock hour, and burned similar materials.

Collins then questioned Gilbert about why the fire suspected to be started by juveniles was excluded, and why an adult male in his early 20s who was seen running and then jumped off the road to hide was not investigated.

“Even with all your surveillance and cameras and tracking and vehicles following him, not one witness has seen my client at or near a fire when it started, correct?” asked Collins.

“That’s correct,” said Gilbert.

Waterman’s attorney Greg Gross continued his standing objection to Chief Gilbert being qualified as an expert witness in this case.

Jackson is being charged with 21 counts of arson, and Waterman with 10.

The prosecution will most likely finish their case on Wednesday, Oct. 23, and the defense will begin calling their witnesses.

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