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Teen Who Set Fire That Sparked Massive Cocos Fire Sentenced To Community Service

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

A firefighter sprays down smoldering hot spots on a burned down structure in San Marcos on May 16, 2014.

A teenage girl who started a fire a year ago that sparked the larger Cocos wildfire, which blackened nearly 2,000 acres and destroyed more than 35 homes and other structures, was sentenced Wednesday to 400 hours of community service with an organization like the Burn Institute or Salvation Army.

Juvenile Court Judge Aaron Katz also ordered the 14-year-old to continue to live with her parents, stay in school and write a letter of apology to the victims.

Katz made the minor a ward of the court, ordering her to report to him on her status every 60 days.

The girl, who likes to ride her bicycle around her fire-ravaged neighborhood, was ordered not to do so by the judge.

"I desperately want something positive to come out of this devastation," the judge told her. "You and matches and lighters are not gonna happen."

Many of the victims who attended the sentencing hearing urged Katz to give the teenager some time behind bars at Juvenile Hall, but the judge reiterated that the focus in Juvenile Court is on rehabilitation, not punishment.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

View of Cocos Fire, from Cinnebar Way in San Marcos, CA, May 15, 2014.

Chuck Higby, who lost his garage in the Cocos fire, said the girl's sentence was a "slap on the wrist."

"I was one of the luckier ones, we just lost our garage," Higby said outside court. "But I watched my neighbor's house burn down, and nothing. She's still gonna get to ride her bicycle, she just can't ride it in our community."

The judge ordered restitution to the victims, which totals $6 million so far, said Deputy District Attorney Shawnalyse Ochoa. She said that under the Juvenile Court system, the parents of a minor can be held responsible for nearly $40,000 in restitution. It's not clear how the remaining restitution will be paid, if at all.

Sylvia Williams said she lost treasures in the fire that can't be replaced. She called the minor "young, irresponsible, immature, thoughtless, careless and stupid."

After a two-week non-jury trial in March, Judge Howard Shore ruled that the girl, intentionally set a fire in her backyard on May 13, 2014, then, the next day, set a blaze in her neighbor's backyard that sent an ember nearly a half-mile to spark the Cocos fire.

Ochoa said the girl expressed glee and laughed when she told her sister about the May 13 fire.

The teenager was convicted of three arson counts and one misdemeanor count of allowing a fire to get out of control. Shore ruled that the teen acted willfully and maliciously in setting the fires but said there was no evidence to suggest she intended to harm anyone or burn homes.

The girl, then 13, told investigators she knew that intentionally setting a fire was wrong but she wanted to see what would happen if she did. "She knew she was doing something wrong, and she did it anyway," Deputy District Attorney Shawnalyse Ochoa said in her closing argument.

The girl went to her room after setting the second fire, allowing that blaze to grow into a larger fire, which sparked the Cocos blaze, the prosecutor said. Two Cal Fire investigators determined that an ember from the fire behind the girl's home traveled .44 of a mile to spark the Cocos fire, according to the prosecutor.

The Cocos fire was one of more than a dozen brushfires that erupted in hot, dry and windy conditions last spring. Officials said fighting the fires cost nearly $28 million.

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