Santa Maria firefighters help with mop-up operations after an intentionally set fire led to significant water damage in a courtroom at the Santa Maria Court Complex on Saturday night.
Santa Maria firefighters help with mop-up operations after an intentionally set fire led to significant water damage in a courtroom at the Santa Maria Court Complex on Saturday night. Credit: Santa Barbara County Superior Court photo

A Nipomo man allegedly broke into the Santa Maria Court Complex and started a fire Saturday night, leading to extensive water damage in the facility.

At 9:12 p.m., personnel from the Santa Maria Police and Fire departments were dispatched to an incident in Building G in the Santa Barbara County Superior Court facility at the corner of Cook and Miller streets.

The incident began after a man received a notice about an upcoming hearing and went Saturday night to the court complex to see where he had to show up next month, according to Court Executive Officer Darrel Parker.

After learning the location, the man ignored a security guard’s order to leave and instead broke the two glass doors at the entrance to the criminal court building. 

Once inside, he forcefully entered the Department 8 courtroom. 

“He pulled the doors on Department 8 so hard that he broke the wood frames on the top of the doors and broke into the courtroom,” Parker said. 

The man then allegedly started a fire on the defense counsel’s chair, which spread to the table and carpet. 

“It was hot enough that it melted the lights in the ceiling and the sprinklers came on,” Parker said. 

“The sprinklers put out the fire, but the sprinklers put out so much water that the courtroom’s a loss,” Parker said, estimated water was 2 inches deep at some points.

Water also infiltrated the courtroom’s adjacent holding cells, but spared the judge’s chambers and court clerk offices.

Parker wasn’t sure if water infiltrated the bench or raised area were the judge sits. Water apparently did not reach Department 9, the second courtroom on the building’s first level. 

On Sunday morning, abatement crews were ripping out furniture and carpet while the building was being ventilated.

The water destroyed computers along with audio-visual systems as a handful of court staff were called in to help out during the three-day holiday weekend. 

Water leaked into the basement where files are stored so Parker said they were looking to locate a contractor to salvage the water-damaged documents so they could be digitally preserved before mold begins. 

“It’s bad,” Parker said. “This is easily half a million dollars, maybe more.”

charred furniture in a courtroom
A fire led to significant set damage in a courtroom at the Santa Maria Court Complex. A Nipomo man was arrested in connection with the incident. Credit: Contributed

Parker estimated the repairs to the state-owned building would take six months to a year or even longer.

Police arrested Eric Spies, 31, and booked him into the Northern Branch Jail, with bail set at $75,000.

Ironically, Spies had been ordered to appear in court for a criminal case involving prior vandalism allegations. 

“It seems unfair to the taxpayers to have to deal with this,” Parker said. “I think that’s more upsetting to me than anything.”

Monday is the Presidents Day holiday, providing more time to assess the damage before court business resumes.

Thanks to a judicial vacancy, Department 1 will be available for cases normally heard by Judge Patricia Kelly in Department 8, Parker said. 

This isn’t the first time a holiday weekend has been spoiled by water damage at the court complex. 

On Fourth of July weekend in 2018, a broken pipe flooded Departments 1 and 2, leading to a protracted repair job complicated by the fact both the state and county owned the building. 

In mid-2019, as repairs lagged, two portable buildings were installed on the campus to served as temporary courtrooms until Departments 1 and 2 could reopen.