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10 Charged with Misdemeanors in Tea Fire Investigation

Group will be arraigned March 2 on charges of trespassing and building a campfire without a permit.

After three months of investigation, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday released the names of the 10 individuals charged with misdemeanors as a result of the Tea Fire probe.

On Friday, District Attorney Christie Stanley announced that no criminal charges would be filed in the case, concluding that evidence gathered could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a campfire allegedly started by members of the group could be traced back to the cause of the Nov. 13 wildfire.

The identities of the 10 had been kept confidential until now to protect the integrity of the official investigation, Stanley said.

The group will face arraignment in Superior Court on March 2 on charges of trespassing and building a campfire and failure to obtain a permit required for a campfire. Charged with the two misdemeanors are Mohammed Alessam, Joshua Grant Decker-Trinidad, Hope Sjohnet Dunlap, Fahad Al-Fadhel, Hashim Ali Hassan, Casey James Lamonte, Natalie Rose Maese, Carver William McLellan, Stephen Reid and Lauren Elizabeth Vazquez.

The Tea Fire, which sprang to life late on the afternoon of Nov. 13 amid gale-force sundowner winds and temperatures in the 90s, originated in the area of the Tea Garden above East Mountain Drive in Montecito. The blaze raged for days, destroying 230 homes, seriously injuring two people and scorching 2,000 acres in the Montecito foothills, upper Sycamore Canyon and Rattlesnake Canyon. The fire burned through the Westmont College campus and left the renowned Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery in ruins.

A recent Sierra Club tour of the Tea Garden revealed evidence of past campfires at the popular hangout spot in the Montecito foothills.
A recent Sierra Club tour of the Tea Garden revealed evidence of past campfires at the popular hangout spot in the Montecito foothills. (Robert Bernstein photo)

In a hastily called news conference Nov. 18, Sheriff Bill Brown said the official investigation had yielded evidence that 10 young people, nine of whom were SBCC students, were at the fire’s point of origin the night before it started and had lit a bonfire. Brown said an attempt had been made to put the fire out, but the heat and aridity of the day, as well as sundowner winds, whipped the smoldering embers into a wildfire.

“There is evidence that a campfire occurred at the Tea Garden between midnight and 4 a.m. (the morning of Nov. 13),” Stanley’s statement said Friday. “However, the existing evidence does not establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt that this campfire in fact caused the Tea Fire.”

Investigators from the Sheriff’s Department, the county Fire Department, Cal Fire and the District Attorney’s Office, interviewed and re-interviewed dozens of people but could not establish beyond a reasonable doubt the connection between the individuals and the wildfire — or that other fires had been set during that time frame.

On Tuesday afternoon, SBCC President Andreea Serban issued a statement confirming that nine of the individuals named Tuesday “were enrolled at SBCC in fall 2008.” Citing restrictions of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, she said the school could not comment further on the individuals.

“Victims of this fire include our own faculty, staff and students, and we have been deeply moved by their strength and resiliency as well as by the compassion and generosity of the many individuals and organizations who have stepped forward to assist those who are in need,” she said.

On Tuesday morning, Westmont spokesman Scott Craig confirmed to Noozhawk that Decker-Trinidad had been a student in the 2007-08 academic year but “did not return in the fall of 2008. His last date of enrollment at Westmont was June 6, 2008.” Decker-Trinidad, of Pompano Beach, Fla., was a member of Westmont’s club-sport polo team during his year at the school.

Noozhawk is continuing to follow leads in the case. Check back later for more details. Click here for a related commentary from Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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