COARSEGOLD — Over 60 people gathered in the Yosemite Lakes Park Clubhouse on Monday evening, May 12, to hear from District Attorney Michael Keitz and Cal Fire investigators about the recent prosecution and conviction of two YLP residents on charges of arson and conspiracy.
“We were here last summer to talk to you about the fires in the area,” said D.A. Keitz, referring to a meeting held on June 13, 2013, to address the fears of anxious residents after weeks of suspicious fires.
“Many of you had looks of terrible concern on your faces, worried that your neighborhoods would go up in flames. We’re happy to report to you tonight that that didn’t happen, and that after months of jury trial, the case has come to a conclusion with the conviction of Kenneth Jackson and Alice Waterman.”
Jackson and Waterman were found guilty on May 8 of a combined 27 counts of arson for starting fires around the YLP area, many right next to their own home on East Revis Circle. They are scheduled to be sentenced on June 6 in Madera Superior Court. Jackson faces 32 years in prison and Waterman is looking at more than 12 years behind bars.
“The success of this case, aside from the outstanding work by my two prosecutors Sally Moreno and John Thackary, lies with the Herculean efforts put together by Cal Fire and Nancy Koerperich’s crew.”
Keitz described the process as a “long haul” in which Cal Fire investigators basically lived in the D.A.’s office from June until last week when the verdicts came in. Many of them were here on assignment from as far away as southern California.
He also expressed his gratitude for the lengthy service of the jury, who heard testimony from 50 witnesses and were presented hundreds of items of evidence, gleaned from over 4,500 pages of reports and documents which were gathered and compiled by Cal Fire investigators.
Nancy Koerperich, Cal Fire Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit Chief, also harkened back to the meeting last June.
“A little less than a year ago, I stood here and pounded my fist and said ‘I’m just as mad as you are, and we are going to get to the bottom of this,'” said Koerperich. “We told you we would be steadfast in our resolve and we were, and I’m incredibly proud of this team. There are now two less arsonists that are going to be out there threatening your homes, your lives and your families.”
Koerperich acknowledged the diligence and dedication of Cal Fire Prevention Bureau Chief Bernie Quinn and his counterpart from the Tuolumne Calaveras Unit, Chief Matthew Gilbert, both of whom were in court every day throughout the 8-week preliminary hearing and the 14-week trial.
“Matt has pretty much lived here for almost a year after we commandeered him,” said Koerperich. “These two guys and their team of over 20 investigators from throughout the state put all the puzzle pieces together to present to the district attorney.”
Koerperich credited Michael Keitz with giving her team the tools they needed and trusting their judgment in building their case, and praised Deputy District Attorneys Moreno and Thackary for their phenomenal work in trying the case in court.
“Arson is incredibly hard to convict on,” she noted, “and to do it in under a year is almost unheard of.”
Questions from the audience included concern over whether or not the defendants would be appealing their convictions. Keitz said they have 30 days from sentencing to do so.
When asked for specifics on exactly how the fires were started, Koerperich declined to go into detail about the incendiary devices investigators believe were used as an ignition source, saying that information would be part of the evidentiary process if indeed there is an appeal.
“Also, we don’t want to tell folks that this might be a good way to start a fire,” she said.
As to what the couple’s motivation was for starting dozens of fires, Keitz noted that a motive was never established.
“We always look for motive in a crime, but oftentimes we may not be able to prove exactly why people do things,” he said. “They didn’t come out and say what motivated them, but the most logical answer was they enjoyed the attention they got from watching all the fire engines coming and the press showing up. We think it was the excitement; the charge they got out of it.”
When someone questioned why the two would start these fires, literally, in their own back yard, Keitz replied that sometimes people commit crimes in such close proximity to themselves because they feel somehow the suspicion won’t focus on them.
There have been rumors, someone noted, that the couple, who have lived in YLP for a fair amount of time, may have been responsible for fires in 2012.
“Whether or not they’ve done any other fires, that hasn’t been established,” said Keitz.
So who pays for all this, someone wanted to know.
“The trial itself and the prosecutors is paid for by the County,” said Keitz.
Chief Koerperich said that suppression efforts and basic prevention duty fell under the umbrella of the cooperative agreement with Madera County Fire, but anything above and beyond was paid for by Cal Fire.
“We wanted to be able to put all our efforts into the investigation without putting things through any sort of approval process, so Cal Fire bore the costs and paid for all the investigators.”
Some members of the audience wanted to know how they could arrange to speak at the sentencing of Jackson and Waterman.
“Generally speaking, persons that are direct victims of crimes can speak at sentencings,” said Keitz. “It seems that everybody out here were victims in this case.”
Those who wish to have their say at sentencing can contact Deputy District Attorney John Thackary, or send written statements to the court via the Madera County Probation Department.
Keitz noted that the Probation Department also collects any ordered restitution on behalf of the court, and anyone wishing to make a claim for loss sustained as a result of any of these fires should contact them.
Chief Koerperich closed by addressing concerns about the upcoming fire season, stating that with the help of the Governor’s executive order with respect to the drought, Cal Fire has been able to hire extra firefighters.
“They will be on the state engines around our area,” she said, “along with 23 new volunteers who have just come on board with Madera County Fire. Our four Battalion Chiefs – Chris Christopherson, Troy Cheek, Mike Surber and Matt Watson – along with Division Chief Don Stein, are looking everyday at how we can improve protection in our area.”
Of particular interest to the residents of YLP is the completion of repairs to Station 10. The fire station was damaged in early February when an engine struck a structural beam causing unsafe conditions in the facility.
Chief Stein noted that “everything takes time when you’re talking about government,” and that bids on the project have been received.
“We have allocated the money, the Board of Supervisors is going to vote on June 3, and hopefully within a week of the vote we’ll have construction started. We hope to start moving our fire engines back in the first part of July.”
All Station 10 equipment has been housed, and firefighters have been responding out of the Yosemite Springs Park Utility Company next door.