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Not Guilty Pleas Entered for 10 Defendants in Tea Fire Probe

The attorney for one of the defendants expresses optimism that the case will be resolved before an April 7 hearing on the trespassing and campfire misdemeanors

Attorneys on Tuesday entered not guilty pleas on behalf of their clients, the 10 people charged with trespassing and starting an illegal campfire in the Tea Garden the night before a devastating wildfire ignited Nov. 13. Tuesday’s arraignment before Santa Barbara County Superior Court Commissioner Edward DeCaro had been postponed for two weeks while the 10 could secure legal representation.

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 were charged with misdemeanors of trespassing and starting a campfire without a permit. The charges followed a lengthy investigation of the Tea Fire’s cause.

The next step in the process, according to Joshua Webb, who represents Decker-Trinidad, is to meet at a Readiness and Settlement hearing April 7. At that meeting, he said, the attorneys for the defendants will discuss and coordinate their efforts.

“It’s obviously important that we work together because you have 10 defendants,” said Webb, who also emphasized that the individuals are not being charged with starting the Tea Fire, only for misdemeanors related to trespassing and starting a campfire on private property.

The Tea Fire destroyed 230 homes as it raged across 2,000 acres in the foothills between Montecito and Santa Barbara in mid-November. The fire burned through the Westmont College campus and left the renowned Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery in ruins. There were two serious injuries in the blaze, but no lives were lost.

The origin of the fire was traced back to the Tea Garden, a private estate in Montecito and a popular after-hours hangout. Although the subsequent investigation asserts that these individuals were at the Tea Garden the night before the fire, according to the District Attorney’s Office, lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that connects them with the blaze the next evening made the case fall short of criminal charges related to the wildfire.

The evidence, said the DA’s office, may or may not pass the threshold for a civil case, although prosecutors did not comment further on the topic.

“There’s been an offer made in the case, and we’re trying to resolve that matter,” said Webb, who declined to go into the specifics of the DA’s offer. He said the defense is hopeful of resolving the matter in an amicable way before the April 7 hearing.

“I don’t know that it will happen,” he said, “but I’m hoping it will happen.”

For the record, Webb said, the defendants were cooperative and forthcoming during the investigation.

“I would imagine that this case will not go to trial; I would imagine that this case will resolve,” he said.

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

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